The fashion industry is powered by cheap labour used to generate huge profits with low production costs. Fashion brands, both luxury and fast fashion brands, are built upon the mass exploitation of garment workers. That’s why Fashion Revolution is calling for a fair, safe, clean and transparent fashion industry. The organisation has been campaigning for a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit.
As the Fashion Revolution Week will be happening from the 19th till the 25th of April, we would like to discuss what has been happening since the Rana Plaza disaster then the Covid-19 outbreak, why we need to get involved in the Fashion Revolution Week more than ever, and how we can make a positive change.
Since the Rana Plaza Disaster
In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, which killed at least 1,132 garment workers and injured more than 2,500, brands suddenly felt compelled – by fear of reputational damage – to recompense for the loss of life. The $30 million endowment was underwritten by brands to help ease the burden for families of the deceased as well as those who sustained catastrophic wounds. However, the access to those funds has been difficult for many. Most of the survivors of the disaster got nothing from the brand or the government.
Although brands started to disclose their own ‘Codes of Conduct’ on their website after the disaster, most of the time they mean nothing. Brand-led voluntary self-regulation of their own supply chains is never going to deliver meaningful labour rights protections for workers. Regulation defined by enforceable agreements between brands and the union that represent workers such as Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety can bring positive change.
In 2013, Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) had already been working for years to press fashion brands to fundamentally change their approach to fire and building safety in Bangladesh in order to bring genuine safety improvements in factories. WRC successfully convinced brands to sign the historic Bangladesh Accord.
More than 145,000 safety violations have been detected under the Accord since 2013, of which 93% of safety issues identified during initial inspections are now remedied. Two and a half million garment workers are now working in vastly safer factories. The fashion industry needs to apply that model of enforceable agreements that obligate brands and retailers to pay a fair price to suppliers more so that it is possible for suppliers to maintain decent working conditions and good wages.
But that doesn’t mean that there are no sweatshops anymore. There’s still government opposition to freedom of association and unionisation. Sexual and physical abuse in factories remains rampant. Workers still do not receive severance when manufacturers go bankrupt.
Photo via Pexels
Covid-19 Hit the Fashion Industry
Over a year ago, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, like many industries, the fashion sector has been devastated by the pandemic. While setting off a series of seismic reactions within the global fashion industry supply chain, stores were forced to shut down to maintain social distancing and consumers’ purchases plummeted.
Brands responded by suspending or cancelling orders to their suppliers around the world and they refused to pay for orders already shipped, completed, or in production. Some brands demanded discounts from or delayed payments to their suppliers, relying on the “force majeure” clause in their contracts to shed responsibility for any financial loss incurred. As a result, suppliers were forced to accept prices for orders that are below the cost of production. With $16 billion worth of unpaid orders globally, these brands are leaving uncollected orders in factories and the most vulnerable populations without an income.
Factory owners struggled to stay in business and had to fire, suspend workers, or reduce their pays. Workers lost 3-6 billion dollars in legally owed wages, which left garment workers exposed to widespread hunger and fear of human trafficking and gender-based violence.
One Year Later…
The situation for garment workers has only gotten worse. According to Fashion Revolution, There has been a 21% decline in garment worker wages across the globe, from an average of $187 per month down to $147 per month, while the top 20 best-performing brands have seen an 11% increase in their market cap. None of the most profitable brands put in any money for garment workers’ severance or relief. 1 in 4 laid off workers has not received legally mandated severance pay and has no safety nets to fall back upon, they are reporting hunger and food insecurity.
Before the outbreak, a majority of garment industry workers in Pakistan were piece-rate workers. Only 20% could say that they were permanent contract workers. Very few of Pakistan’s big supplier companies paid the minimum wage as per the law. Normally they had 12-hour shifts and 4 hours of overtime but they were not paid the double rate for overtime work. There are no real unions in Pakistan’s garment industry. Workers, some of whom are trying to organise, are often subject to threats and violence.
When the pandemic hit Pakistan, factories have thrown workers out of jobs. Once the schools opened in Pakistan, workers had to stop their children from going to school because they could not pay the fee asked.
We Need Fashion Revolution Week More Than Ever
The pandemic has revealed how a core part of brands’ profitability is achieved by consistently underpaying suppliers and garment workers. The first concrete action that brands must take to improve garment workers’ lives is to pay their orders and fund unpaid workers. Moreover, timely payment by brands for completed orders is crucial for the health of the industry and the well-being of workers who rely on the timely payment of their wages. Brands also need to take a much tougher stance on gender-based violence and fear of retribution (In the manufacturing sector, which is often located in developing countries, 80% of garment workers are women).
No one should die for fashion, and that’s why legally binding agreements between apparel brands and global trade unions help ensure that disasters like Rana Plaza never happen again. However, Bangladesh Accord will expire on 31st May 2021. If the Accord is not renewed, the safety of over 2 million workers in 1,600 garment factories will be left in the hands of voluntary, non-enforceable Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, which have been unable to prevent mass casualties.
You can do your part by sharing support for the Accord’s extension and calling upon brands to taken action to #ProtectProgress.
The producing countries and the garment workers have no voice. Sustainable fashion conversations in the West have no voices from the people close to the pain of the pandemic and brand’s unethical practices. But you can speak up for them by getting involved during Fashion Revolution Week.
Go to Fashion Revolution’s page to find out how you can take action.
Spreading words and increasing awareness among consumers can make our voices loud enough to be heard by powerful brands and retailers. The least we can do is share our privilege and platform to demand a humane, safe and dignified workplace for those whose cries for justice have been deliberately silenced and unheard for too long.