Factories all over the world have had to put workers on furlough over decreased orders from big brands, plus a lack of materials coming in from China. This has meant uncertainty for millions of people who barely survive with their regular full wages.
Yet our problems did not start with COVID-19. The fashion industry has been highly compartmentalised for decades, to cheapen costs as much as possible: brands outsource factory work in developing nations, and in turn, these factories outsource workers. It’s a supply chain of contractors that translates into cheaper clothes with a dangerously high human cost. When orders are abruptly canceled, factories are often left without a cushion to pay their employees. In many cases, there aren’t even enough funds to pay for already completed work.
Photo credit: Made in Bangladesh
The chain is set up to avoid liability in any time of crisis, leaving a vast, vulnerable population to its own devices. And these are the same people, key workers who, in normal times and conditions, make up the foundation of production for big textile and fashion brands.
Low-paying garment workers in textile-producing countries across the developing world are some of the hardest-hit by the current coronavirus pandemic. In Southeast Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe, and other parts of the world, people are being left without jobs, wondering about their immediate or midterm futures. As it is, factories have traditionally only paid garment workers barely enough to support themselves and their families, leaving many without the kind of savings some are lucky to turn to during tougher times, let alone a worldwide crisis like the one we’re now facing. Many of the garment workers are not allowed to unionise, and receiving the protections of health insurance has always seemed like a distant dream, which just got farther away.
One of the most devastating things about the COVID-19 pandemic is how it is brutally exposing the vast inequalities that have become a norm in too many industries, fashion included. Millions of people expectantly await on the next cycle of news, wondering if this will be the day when they get some answers and a glimmer of hope for their families.
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights recently published a report, revealing that major brands are falling back on the practices that allow supply chains to function the way they currently do. Too many companies are washing their hands of the factories and workers that provide crucial services for them overseas without due consideration. In fact 72.4% of Bangladesh’s garment suppliers – whose orders were canceled en masse as the pandemic gathered rapid momentum – cannot presently offer any payment to workers during leave, and 80.4% are unable to cover severance pay when having to dismiss employees due to the crisis.
The current supply chains of fast fashion makes it too easy for big brands to dump any liabilities and flee, leaving people who were already tethering on the poverty line, to fall deeper within it. Yet this could be the time when brands make a change and step up to the responsibilities that come with employing overseas labour. There are actions fashion companies can take to improve the current situation and make way for a more humane industry going forward. Flexibility is vital during these challenging times!
What Brands Can Do Now
Honour Current Commitments
Honouring current commitments is the bare minimum brands can do. Brands with budget should pay for completed and in-production work, even if future orders are now on hold. It’s also important to be flexible with deadlines, as current health restraints and lack of materials will make it difficult to maintain the same delivery timelines.
The most significant issue workers are currently facing is not knowing when the next paycheck is coming. Big brands can and should continue to cover the wages of all the staff employed at the onset of the pandemic across departments, whether they’re in charge of directly making garments or in logistics. This should come regardless of technical employment status, whether contractors or full-time employees. It is also crucial that workers maintain their legal benefits, including severance payments and health insurance.
Create Emergency Relief Funds
Whilst the responsibility does not fall entirely on brands and retailers to provide relief, where possible there should be some contribution alongside that of financial institutions (both local and global) and governments. As the world experiences the economic consequences of the pandemic, we have started to see initiatives from government entities appearing to support the most vulnerable. This must occur on a macro level as well, particularly from the global brands who have expanded their factory presence overseas. Time is of the essence in this scenario, and brands must make sure that funds reach their vulnerable workers in the speediest way possible.
Times are undoubtedly tough, and the easiest path would seem to cut ties with factories and workers until the situation returns to some form of normalcy. However, in our industry, nobody is having it tougher than factory workers in developing nations and we all know it. For them, keeping some income can quite literally make a difference between living and dying – virus aside. Dismissed workers in garment-making countries will have to face a practically nonexistent job market as factories everywhere will be undergoing the same processes. While the best-case scenario is keeping workers on furlough receiving their full salaries, even a pay cut is better than leaving them to earn no income during this tough time.
Maintain Proper Health Conditions
Some factories will continue to operate, whether they are creating high-street apparel or war-like provisions – like face masks. In those cases, brands must commit to keeping employees and contractors safe. Factories must follow indications from national and global authorities regarding social distance, use of masks and so on, providing the applicable supplies for workers.
Prioritise Labour Rights
The health emergency cannot become an excuse to belittle workers’ rights. Brands with a strong presence in garment-making countries have all the power to ensure that proper labour conditions are followed. Often, countries whose GDP is greatly bolstered by the ready made garment industry will have strong labour laws that are not enforced, and this is not the time for lax measures. The right to freely associate must be protected at all costs and also, most importantly, the right to refuse work if conditions are not suitable. If factories are not taking every possible measure to keep workers healthy, employees must be able to choose to stay home without that posing a risk for their employment and income.
What Brands Can Do When the COVID-19 Emergency Passes
The fast fashion industry has been in dire need of an overhaul for quite some time, and the effects of this pandemic should be the highest wake-up call received. Supply chains around the world must improve and shift towards a more human-centric approach. Building more resilient supply chains needs to become the priority when this is all over, and there must be a focus on better lives for workers, from living wages to social benefits.
Fast fashion needs to change after this pandemic and become more conscious of the people who depend on it. Prices should be adjusted, and supply chains must strive towards a safer industry for all who work in it. It is the job of brands to step up towards a more mindful industry, yes, but it is also our job as consumers and activists to demand more from them as we go forward. It’s important to remember which brands step up during this crisis and which ones leave their workers stranded, and act accordingly in the days post COVID-19. We can come out of this stronger by putting our part in growing from this, becoming more conscious as companies and consumers.