The fashion industry has blood on its hands, and during the recent pandemic, it’s only become more apparent that the apparel industry sustains a practice that continues to exploit Black and brown women.
In 2019, the ex- and third generational CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson, claimed in his now notorious interview with Bloomberg News that the growing interest in sustainable fashion posed a significant social threat by shaming consumers for purchasing fast fashion. The business news site reported: “[Persson] was concerned about protests that encourage consumers to ‘stop doing things, stop consuming, stop flying’ that ‘may lead to a small environmental impact, but [will] have terrible social consequences.’” And it wasn’t just Persson.
In a Business Insider Interview, Dov Charney, the CEO of LA Apparel denied the outbreak of COVID-19 in his factories, stating: “I’m alleging that certain people at the department [Los Angeles County Department of Health] are misleading the public because they’re looking for a political win.” The LA County Department of Public Health ordered the LA Apparel factory to close after they found 300 confirmed cases of COVID infections and four garment worker deaths on July 10, 2020.
Tadashi Yanai, the CEO of Fast Retailing, which owns brands like UNIQLO and Theory, came under fire for one of the largest cases of wage theft and gender-based discrimination in the system. Unfortunately, the truth is that unethical practices have long been occurring in his Jaba Garmindo factories — including specific reports of union harassment and targeted“ the firing of pregnant workers and the harassment of trade union members.” When asked about the $5.5 million owed to pregnant garment workers that had been fired, and trade union members that had been harassed and discriminated against, Uniqlo refused to take responsibility. In fact, the group increased its profits by 9% in just 2019. And that’s for a brand that was already worth $8.6 Billion. Paying up wasn’t even considered.
Karl Perrson is worth $1.6 billion. Dov Charney was once worth $500 million. Tadashi Yanai is worth $31.9 billion.
Fast fashion CEOs have long been denying their responsibility in these human rights transgressions. Paying their workers livable wages, ending the piece pay rate, ensuring adequate benefits and working conditions, and adhering to environmental safety standards are all steps these fast fashion CEOs, like Perrson, Charney, and Yanai, have dismissed as being a natural part of the environmental and social cost of doing business. And it’s only gotten more devastating since the pandemic. Since the COVID-19 health crisis, brands have canceled orders on a mass scale, resulting in delayed payments — and in some cases, no payments at all.
So why do brands and the powers that lead them continuously refuse to commit to ethical labor standards? It certainly seems like they are in a position to afford it.
Unfortunately for these fast fashion CEOs, switching to a more ethical production process would mean biting the hand that pays them.
Under the current system of subcontracting, larger corporations like H&M, Uniqlo, and LA Apparel enter into production contracts with factories that promise a certain amount of inventory within a specified time frame — often a very tight time frame — for a standard manufacturing market price. Most times, these garment manufacturing factories lack enough resources to complete the order within such a tight time frame, so they, in turn, outsource a percentage (if not all), the labor to third-party garment workers, who work either in a smaller factory or independently as homeworkers. The garment workers at the end of this production line are a majority women of color, who are paid a fraction of the original wages negotiated by the brand and the contracted factory. Under this system, the contractor factory makes money off of the interaction between brands and the final garment manufacturers as a third party. Not only that, this tangled web of brand-to-supplier-to-manufacturer production has done away with any forms of checks in employer power, resulting in it being rife with sexual harassment, violence, unethical working conditions, and wage theft.
And because all the big fast fashion players use this system of outsourcing, there’s incentive to stay in the game. Fast fashion plays to its massive demand, meaning, it directly encourages an abusive and exploitative production process. According to Professor Mark Anner of The School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State, fast fashion is facing a major problem in purchasing practices. Because unethical production practices of outsourcing and subcontracting have introduced a dirt-cheap way to produce clothes, the selling point of a garment can be priced unethically low. Currently, as reported by the Clean Clothes Campaign: “for most garments, wages for production will scarcely exceed 3% of the price you pay in the shop.” And we — as in we the consumers — lap it up. Speaking as a broke college student, there’s no better dream scenario than having my clothes cost as much as my weekly expenses for coffee.
In fact, the only way these fast fashion brands will continue to secure demand is by selling at an unsafely low price point, which in turn locks them into a seemingly unending cycle of unethical production. In the buyer market of fast fashion, we must come to terms with the fact that we, the consumers, set the prices. We, the consumers, pit one fast fashion brand against another in the race to the bottom. And we’ve squeezed the price so much, that it has now become the norm that we have indeed anchored onto with little to no hesitation. With a generation of shoppers who have come of age during the rise of fast fashion, it seems almost impossible to imagine a time where clothes didn’t cost less than $10. This is the world we know and we operate in; it seems only natural to us that everything is “business as usual.”
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely writes about this very phenomenon in his 2009 book Predictably Irrational, where he takes the view that prices we anchor onto serve as long-term baselines by enforcing a sense of “value coherence.” One of the most fascinating cases that Ariely alludes to is that of the “Pearl King” — in which Salvador Assael turned Tahitian black “junk” pearls into exquisite and exclusive jewels, simply by putting them on the same shelf as high-end rubies, diamonds, and gold. Consumers were anchored to the idea that a black pearl should be as expensive as any other rare gems, and so were willing to pay top dollar for them, for generations to come.
We, in the same manner, have anchored onto the idea that clothes should be dirt cheap, and so we aren’t willing to pay top dollar for them. While we previously would not know how to rank the inherent “social value” of clothes, by seeing them within the context of cheaper fast fashion pieces, other fast fashion brands, and the labor marketed as “unskilled factory work,” we have a metric to assess how much we think these clothes should be worth. Once established, the anchor is hard to get rid of. It’s this very long-term, arbitrary coherence that is somewhat concerning, especially when we anchor onto a price that is illegal and unethical. We now intrinsically value clothing at ridiculously cheap prices, and we can’t seem to step away from doing so.
What does brand behavior mean for workers?
Fast fashion brands have long maintained the narrative that they are job creators. In fact, the newly appointed CEO of H&M, Helena Helmersson, spoke to Vogue about the ethical sourcing and production issues the company was facing in a 2020 article. The article reports: “Helmersson — who spent two years working in the H&M production office in Dhaka, Bangladesh — is adamant, though, that H&M has a hugely positive impact in such countries. ‘A big company like H&M can be part of something truly amazing, especially when it comes to job creation, and especially for women [who make up approximately 80 percent of garment workers globally] and helping families out of poverty,’ she says.”
While theoretically, H&M might be contributing to an increase in the quantity of jobs, the quality of jobs is highly questionable. In fact, Remake reported that: “the company [H&M] claims it’s working to get direct relief to garment workers impacted by the pandemic through the ILO Call to Action, but the Call to Action has to date released a staggeringly insufficient sum of money (less than $200 million to just four countries) to workers after eleven months of existence.” While the brand has agreed to #PayUp as of April 2021, they have not committed to keeping workers safe, full transparency into their production process, or signing enforceable contracts to ensure that workers are paid more than a starvation-level wage, amongst other actions.
To meet consumers’ demands, brands have been increasing the contracts they enter into, demanding outrageous inventory in an impossible time frame. And this is a global issue. Immigrant women of color in the LA garment manufacturing industry are facing similar struggles. Remake estimates the number of immigrant women in LA’s garment manufacturing sector nears upwards of 50,000. Santa Puac, is one of these women. As a garment worker leader, whose factory produced for labels sold to Ross, she knows the extent of wage theft intimately. Speaking at a Garment Worker Center hosted a press conference, to introduce the newly proposed SB 62 Garment Worker Protection legislation: “For the 20 years I have been in this country, I have worked in sewing. As a garment worker, we suffer a lot of exploitation [in the garment industry]. I worked in a company that produced about 80% for one fashion label, and at that company I worked from five in the morning to five in the afternoon, and that was for $70 a day and 12 hours a day, and that was $350 for the week, for five days. I don’t think that it’s fair that so many hours have to be worked to earn such little money. We didn’t have a right to have breaks. We didn’t have overtime. They just gave us the $350 for the week. The bathrooms were dirty, there was no toilet paper in the bathrooms, we had to eat on top of the machines we were working. There is a lot of suffering. There is a lot of wage theft.”
It is evident that brands have stressed the system of outsourcing and subcontracting to the point where the already existing human rights issues within it have been exacerbated.
And according to Professor Anner, factories are also rife with gender-based discrimination and violence. In his research into Indian garment manufacturing, he found that garment workers actually referred to their production quotas as “production torture” — indicative of working conditions which ignore all sense of human rights. Testimonials like these are generally descriptive of a larger culture that dominates the garment manufacturing side of the fashion industry. It’s one that’s steeped in violent patriarchy and gender discrimination.
On February 3, 2021, Remake reported the disappearance and subsequent death of Jeyasre Kathirvel, a 20-year-old Dalit garment worker from Tamil Nadu, from her job at H&M supplier Natchi Apparels. Reports by the Asia Wage Floor Alliance allege that her supervisor had attempted to rape her. The statement by the organization also outlined that this had been a repeated offense, speaking to the banality of sexual harassment and violence within the garment manufacturing industry. Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, the Executive Director of the Institute for South Asia Studies (Institute) at UC Berkeley, says the problem is that women are in large part restricted to entry-level positions in the garment manufacturing industry. Wages for these positions are typically extremely low compared to other jobs within the production line, and oftentimes, for women there is minimal to no opportunity for advancement.
And the massive misogyny in the garment manufacturing industry has only been aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis. Because the pandemic has caused brands to reduce order volume on account of the decrease in demand and caused a traumatic delay in compensation for manufacturing, it has culminated in a workforce made up of women of color who are plagued by not only sweatshop conditions but also the effects of food and housing insecurity for their themselves and their families.
In her article on East Asia Forum, Professor Saxena writes: “During this time of global upheaval, brands have used their unequal power positions with suppliers to justify canceling or postponing orders and refusing to pay for orders that suppliers have already produced and materials that have already been procured, despite having a contractual obligation to do so. Brands have benefited from cheap labor from Bangladesh for decades but do not feel obliged to take care of those at the bottom of their supply chains. As a result, tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh may die, not from COVID-19, but from starvation.”
This is the overall social cost of producing clothes: sexual harassment, sexual violence, wage theft, COVID-19, healthcare, and the list goes on and on. It’s these very issues — economic, social, and mental — that take an unjustifiable toll on women of color, all of whom are skilled seamstresses being massively exploited on a long-term basis. The trickle-down effects from brands’ pricing their clothing at an unethically low price point have directly resulted in issues of generational poverty and food insecurity among these women garment workers.
Why do brands continue to exploit these primarily Black and brown women, the backbone of the industry, as second-class citizens? For brands, they are simply the price to pay for trendy clothes and outrageous profits. In actuality, they are skilled workers who pour their heart and soul into the work they do. These garment workers should not be forced to be chained to their machines by sweatshop-era policies that simply give big business and corporate interests write-offs just because of their money. It’s high time we hold the corporate forces of fashion — the H&Ms, the UNIQLOs, the LA Apparels of the world — in check.
#Payher: What can we do to help?
We have anchored onto an unethically derived minimum price for clothing, and given that we now see this as the norm, the only way we can infuse any level of ethicality into a system that feeds off the lifeblood of Black and brown women is to call on all C-suite fashion operatives and fast fashion brands to share their profits.
The #shareyourprofits campaign demands that brands making a third-quarter profit share their profits with the garment workers who made it possible. Any brand that has committed to #PayUp, and that has made a profit, must commit and take action to:
1) Pay #TenCentsMore to the Severance Guarantee Fund
2) Help Provide Direct Relief to Garment Workers
3) Protect Freedom of Association (Unionization)
It is only through collective action and education that we can even begin to move that anchor further and further away from unethical labor practices. As Ayesha Barenblat puts it: “We must remember that before we are consumers, we are first citizens.” And as such, it is our right and our duty to use our voices to hold corporate power accountable and demand that they stop continuing to exploit Black and brown women.
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