In just four months, COVID-19 has surfaced generations-long inequities that exist in the fashion industry, particularly those in garment supply chains where women make up nearly 80 percent of the workforce.

Even under more “normal” circumstances, garment workers are historically underpaid, lack access to critical benefits like maternity leave and health care, and often face unsafe conditions. The garment industry is rife with gender discrimination, exploitation, violence, and harassment on the job. Although women make up a majority of the workforce, they are notoriously underrepresented in leadership, management decisions, and workplace policies. While they scramble to meet the demands of the fashion industry, they are stripped of their own dignity and rights. Now, while they mobilize to fight a pandemic, their work and livelihoods are at risk with the global economy in decline.

Once working at break-neck speeds to keep up with the demands of our ever-expanding closets, fashion production lines have come to a grinding halt, leaving workers in the lurch. Countries have closed borders. People around the world have been ordered to shelter in place, leaving factories and retail outlets temporarily closed and many people out of work and uncertain about how to provide for themselves and their families. No one has been untouched by this crisis in some way or another.

what is fair trade
The results from Fair Trade Committee election day are announced at Connoisseur Fashions, a Fair Trade Certified factory, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

Some workers may fare better than others. Some still have work in factories that are prioritizing health, preparedness, and prevention. Some, in countries like India that are under shelter in place orders, will be sent home not knowing when they will return. Others have lost their jobs and more will likely follow. Now more than ever, it is important that brands uphold their responsibility to the workers in their supply chains and work in partnership with them on solutions.

As garment workers are in some areas being called upon to make life-saving PPE, and in other regions facing at best temporary factory closures and at worst layoffs, it is vital that their safety and rights are protected right now.

As we are forced to make more thoughtful decisions about when and how we shop, this is a critical moment for human rights and sustainability to rise to the forefront of our ongoing global conversation—particularly if we want to see women’s empowerment on a global scale. After all, sustainable fashion is a women’s issue.

We cannot wait until the pandemic passes.

How is The Pandemic a Women’s Empowerment Issue?

The ability to participate in and contribute to the formal economy is a significant lever for women’s economic empowerment. This is recognized by United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 8, which sets out to “promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all.” (BSR)

Garment factory jobs are often the first opportunity for women to work outside of domestic responsibilities. When they are safe, well-paid, and equal in opportunity, women in the industry can thrive.

Under strong and representative management, workplaces also hold enormous potential for women to develop skills that enable them to lead and speak up for themselves. From training courses to participation in workplace committees, like the committees required by the Fair Trade Factory Standard, women can learn proactive problem-solving skills, leadership, negotiation, and confidence. Their leadership is vital to ensure the sustainability of the industry at-large.

How Can Fair Trade Help Women Specifically?

Every time a Fair Trade Certified™ product is purchased, the maker earns an additional amount of money that goes into a Community Development Fund at origin. From there, a democratically elected committee of farmers or workers, called the Fair Trade Committee, votes on how the funds will be best spent based on dialog and proactive problem-solving around their community’s greatest needs.

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Workers finalize the vote count from Fair Trade Committee election day.

In the wake of COVID-19, that can mean funding for health equipment, emergency funds for basic necessities, and more. The gender representation on these committees must reflect that of the workforce—so, in the Fair Trade Certified factory program, women represent about 54 percent of the workforce, and women represent 50 percent of committee members with decision-making power. In 2018, Fair Trade Certified factory workers earned $4.4 million Community Development Funds and 88,000 people were eligible to vote on the spending of these dollars.

Support During COVID-19

Fair Trade USA® remains committed to the wellbeing of the people who make our clothes and lift up companies that are working hard to do the same.

Our team is working closely with our brand and factory partners in the apparel program to understand their unique situations and promote partnership and transparency as we all manage business slowdowns. We are also supporting the Fair Trade Committees to use their Community Development Funds to support workers and their families during this hardship. To do so, Fair Trade USA has increased the flexibility of the spending of Community Development Funds to give garment employees a buffer to rely on in time of need. We are already seeing factories come together to creatively problem solve and use their funds for relief efforts.

Connoisseur Fashions, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, is among the more than 75 percent of Fair Trade Certified factories that have reported to have shut down production.

Prior to India’s abrupt lockdown order, the factory’s Fair Trade Committee had conducted a needs assessment and decided to initiate a new project with their Community Development Funds. However, the lockdown put a halt on the project. Upon reassessing during the lockdown, the committee agreed take advantage of the flexible premium spending policy to use their funds to support workers via a cash payment in April. This has allowed workers access to funds for food, water, and hygiene products so their families can make ends meet while sheltering in place.

D. Rubavathi, 35, originally from Thiruvanamalai, Tamil Nadu, India poses for a photo with her niece outside of their home.

Connoisseur is different from most factories in India in that it not only has a lot of women in leadership roles, including at brand and HR management level, but that it also prioritizes the career trajectories of its workers, says Jaganathan Raghupathy, Fair Trade USA Field Manager for factories in South India and Sri Lanka. They are also ensuring workers are still paid during the lockdown.

“Women are the invisible backbone of the garment industry, yet they come straight from high school with very low expectations for career advancement,” Raghupathy says.

“The prospect of marriage and pregnancy make it very difficult for women to work their way up within a factory or plan a career. The apparel industry is very ‘do your job, take your money, and leave,’ but at Connoisseur, they come up with a career roadmap for all employees, men and women alike. When a woman goes on maternity leave, she can come back to the same position and not be penalized for her absence. Employees know that if they hit certain targets they are guaranteed a promotion.”

Elsewhere, where factories are still operating, fair trade factories have stepped up to prioritize the health and safety of their workers. Artistic Milliners, a Fair Trade Certified factory in Pakistan, has put precautionary measures in place including face mask distribution, fever checks, and sanitizer stations at each entry, and also hosted a training session for employees on precautions they can take against the spread of COVID-19.

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Fair Trade Committee election day at Connoisseur Fashions factory in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A quote from author Cynthia Occelli comes to mind as we think about the major changes that the fashion industry will need to undergo on the other side of this crisis. “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone,” Occelli says. “The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

From within this unprecedented hardship emerges an unprecedented opportunity: to rebuild the broken fashion industry from the ground up into our vision of what we know it can and should be.

Learn how you can join the movement by texting WearFair to 52886 and by shopping for Fair Trade Certified styles.

Images: c/o Fair Trade

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