One of the most severely affected industries by the coronavirus lockdowns is the fashion industry. With people all around the world staying home and losing jobs, buying new clothes is first to be crossed off every struggling family’s essentials list. But what does this mean to garment workers and their families?
One word – DEVASTATION.
It is no secret that many fashion companies in the world, particularly those considered fast fashion businesses, partner with Asian manufacturers (“Made in China”, “Made in Bangladesh”) for their garment production because it’s cheaper to produce there. The cost of materials, labor, and operations are unarguably much lower in these countries. In turn, they help the economies of these countries by providing jobs for millions of people.
However, as the coronavirus hit, the demand for non-essential goods such as clothing and fashion accessories plummeted prompting global fashion brands and retailers to cancel in-production orders from their manufacturers. They also refused to pay their suppliers for orders that have already been produced. It was a huge blow to garment workers and technicians; in Bangladesh order cancellations amounted to over $3 billion. Around the world, almost $40 billion worth of clothing production was cancelled. As a result, many factories at the bottom of the global garment supply chain have had to close down their entire operations.
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As a result of cancelled and unpaid orders, workers in developing countries have been severely affected. “This is the equivalent of the salaries of Bangladesh’s four million garment workers for the next eight years,” said Mark Anner, Professor on Labor and Employment Relations at the Pennsylvania State University. Factories were shut down, millions of garment workers were laid off and most did not receive their rightful salaries for the work they have rendered, bringing fashion’s issue of unjust wages and poor working conditions to the forefront. It seems in the fashion industry, everything and everyone is disposable.
Remake to the rescue with its #PayUp Campaign
Remake, a non-profit advocacy group specializing in ethical and sustainable fashion uses fashion as a means to spread goodness in this world. By increasing public awareness regarding the ills of fast fashion and educating people to buy clothing from companies that show respect for people and care for our planet, Remake is at the forefront of the slow fashion movement.
In light of these recent events, they have launched the #PayUp campaign to make global fashion brands accountable to their partner manufacturers in developing countries by pressuring them to make good on their contracts and pay up.
Acting on reports from suppliers and garment workers, Remake, together with the Worker Rights Consortium and Business & Human Rights Resource Center, keep a list of fashion companies who have unpaid orders from their suppliers. They monitor the response of these brands, the actions taken by government, and the workers’ demands in line with the impact of the pandemic on the fashion industry. Once the brands being petitioned to PayUp have promised to settle their payments for their orders in full and in a timely manner, then they are removed from the list.
The power of social media
The PayUp petition has garnered more than 270,000 signatures to date. Celebrities such as Amber Valletta, Cameron Russell, and Arizona Muse have voiced their support for the campaign and thanks to social media, the campaign is causing quite a stir with people pressuring their favorite brands to pay up and brands forced to protect their reputation and image by taking full responsibility for their orders and agreeing to do so.
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Adidas, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., Nike, Marks & Spencer, Ralph Lauren, Target, Uniqlo, and Under Armour are just some of the 21 brands that have committed to #PayUp for their orders, whether they have been completed or still in-production. This has led to unlocking approximately $1 billion for garment suppliers in Bangladesh alone and around $22 billion worldwide. With each payment made by these brands, suppliers can finally provide workers the wages and benefits that they deserve.
Currently, at the time of writing, 19 brands on the list haven’t committed to paying their orders yet. This list includes Arcadia (Topshop), Esprit, JCPenney, Kohl’s, Mothercare, Sears, the Children’s Place, Urban Outfitters, and Walmart.
Why aren’t they paying up?
These brands are invoking the force majeure clause in their contracts as a reason for not paying up, saying that the coronavirus pandemic is an unforeseen circumstance affecting their capacity to fulfill their part of the contract. Some are asking for rebates and discounts from their suppliers. There are brands delaying the deliveries of their orders so that they don’t have to pay for them yet. There are companies requesting for an extended payment schedule for items that have already been shipped to them.
Each non-payment or delay has a huge impact on the lives of the garment factory workers. As stated in the Remake petition:
“Unless fashion brands like Urban Outfitters, JCPenney, C&A and others #PayUp, millions of mostly women garment makers will go hungry and be forced onto the streets.”
While we understand the impact of this pandemic on the business of these global fashion brands, they still have a responsibility to honor their obligations to their manufacturers, who have already spent resources, time, effort and hired workers to produce these goods. If these brands don’t pay up, millions of workers, the majority of whom are women, are left without a source of income and threatens to throw many of them back into poverty.
“Many brands are most focused on profit and how to cut costs and therefore prioritise consumers and their products over women workers and how they are disproportionately affected by the injustices in their supply chain,” said activist and founder of the AWAJ Foundation, Nazma Akter in a statement. “While they provide charity efforts, they shirk their responsibilities to ensure basic rights for workers. Alongside the dire need for living wages, we want justice, freedom of association, an end to gender based violence and equal pay for equal work.”
As Mark Anner aptly explains, “Decades of low prices have left many suppliers with minimal capital and now mounting debts. Years of low wages with no savings and little hope sustained from government support will leave workers in dire situations. And chronic low tax revenues from buyers have led exporting country governments with weak social safety nets to assist workers in this time of crisis.” This is why paying up is the responsible thing to do for these global fashion brands so that those at the bottom of the pyramid will have a chance to survive this pandemic.
So let’s make sure the fashion industry takes responsibility for the suffering they are causing and help make them accountable to their commitments. Sign the petition, share it and vote with your dollars. Be conscious of the brands you buy and make sure the clothes you wear aren’t causing more pain and suffering, to other humans and to our natural environment.
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Cover image of RMG workers holding a protest rally against the retrenchment and forced resignations of workers and firing of pregnant women caused by factory closures during covid 19 pandemic in Dhaka in June 2020. Photo by Mamunur Rashid.