Wage Justice Must Be Part of the Sustainable Fashion Agenda

Credit: Clean Clothes Campaign

Today sees the beginning of the 2020 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, “The leading business event on sustainability in fashion”, that is running as an online event this year and will “bring to life stories that champion the intersection of fashion and sustainability along with the people and perspectives driving our industry forward”.

But one key set of people and perspectives are noticeably missing – the workers who make our clothes. The invisible (dare we say, ‘disposable’) workforce who make the large-scale profits possible, the ones bearing the brunt of Covid-19 and the years of unsustainable practices that brought us to this point, yet again have no seat at the table – are given no voice in “global fashion agenda” discussions.

Clean Clothes Campaign are responding to this injustice with a social media takeover – calling on the brands to #PayUp for orders, to sign the wage assurance pledge, and to make living wages a top sustainability priority.

Covid-19 has shown us, once and for all, that the old way was unsustainable; that poverty wages leave workers even more vulnerable and in crisis when the unexpected hits. If brands are truly committed to a sustainable agenda, they will make wages just as much a priority as environmental issues. It is our conviction that the two go hand in hand – that attending to the “green agenda” whilst ignoring the glaring injustice of poverty wages is disingenuous and short-sighted. We need equal measures that seek to save the planet and value all the people who live – and work – upon it.

You can read up on CCCs campaign and take action now:

The Circle continues to advocate for a living wage for garment workers. To find out more about this project, click here. 


Exploitation in the Fashion Industry: An issue from Leicester to Phnom Penh

Image: Rex

Home Secretary Priti Patel has claimed to be ‘appalled’ by the illegal wages and working conditions of a garment factory in Leicester, a story that was front page news of this weekend’s UK papers. The factory, which is under investigation for unsafe working conditions and poverty wages, produces clothing for brands including Boohoo and Nasty Gal and has paid wages as low as £3.50 an hour. Although shocking, these findings are not new. Leicester is responsible for around a third of the UK’s fashion manufacturing and has been subject to claims of unsafe conditions including blocked fire exits, unsafe conditions and illegal wages for years – recently coming under additional fire for an almost complete lack of PPE for the workers who continued to produce clothing through the UK’s lockdown. When Vogue Magazine spoke to Debbie Coulter, Head of Programmes at the Ethical Trading Initiative back in 2017, she stated that workers were housed in units that “frankly you’d be fearful of entering – lack of fire safety equipment, fire safety risks, building safety risks.”

These findings are clearly abhorrent, but it does beg the question, if the Home Secretary is so appalled at these conditions in the UK, then why aren’t the Government acting with the same force on those brands working transnationally?

Fashion brands outsource their manufacturing to source globally cheap labour, production is moved to wherever the labour is cheapest. Poorer countries compete against each other for the investment of garment production, selling the labour of the most vulnerable in their society for a price at which they cannot sustain decent lives. Workers’ rights and wages are squeezed to ensure the highest profits for retailers. This is a globally sanctioned system of exploitation that we know is happening yet continue to facilitate. Why are these conditions and wages unacceptable in Leicester, but an unfortunate bi-product of capitalism in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia or Indonesia? It cannot be one rule for ‘us’ and another rule for ‘them’. Fundamental human rights are the same for all humans and need to be upheld across the board with the same rigour.

Across this industry, almost 80% of the workforce are women. The majority of which, are not earning a Living Wage. In addition, these women are subject to harassment within the workplace and unsafe conditions – the extremity of which can be demonstrated in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013, that resulted in the deaths of 1,134 people. In Vogue’s 2017 exposé of factories in Leicester, they identified that a large proportion of workers being exploited were women who had come to the UK speaking little English. Many “come to UK on a six-month visa and work every hour they can before returning home” and brands exploit their urgency to earn and expectations of the worth of their labour to ensure vast profits on cheaply produced clothing.

Image: NGWF

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign’s report False Promises: Migrant Workers in the Global Garment Industry “the lack of legal protection is at the root of much of the exploitation faced by migrant workers.” These workers are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of workplace exploitation and The Circle has recently made emergency grants to garment workers in Bangladesh who had been abandoned by retailers who cancelled orders and refused to pay wages; many of whom were migrant workers who were excluded from even the most limited government aid during the Covid-19 crisis. In the UK too, the Government have come under intense scrutiny for the exclusion of migrant women from services and protections offered by the Domestic Abuse Bill that will be discussed today. Allowing systems that exploit the most marginalised members of society, whether that is in the UK or abroad, erodes the standards of basic human rights.

Debbie Coulter warned that multinational fashion companies “act with such impunity it is quite frightening” and we have seen during the Covid-19 crisis that brands have not upheld the rights of their workers, have refused to honour their contracts with suppliers, and yet seem to have emerged unscathed. The fashion industry cannot be a special case and now, more than ever, there is an urgent need to establish legislative change that will ensure a Living Wage for garment workers globally; from Leicester to Dhaka to Phnom Penh. Click here find out more about The Circle’s Living Wage work.

Article written by Anna Renfrew, Projects and Communications Officer at The Circle.


Garment Workers’ Stories

Image: National Garment Workers Federation

As part of the Women and Girls Solidarity Fund, we’ve made emergency grants to partners in Bangladesh to provide essential supplies including food, protective masks and soap to garment workers who have been left destitute.

Garment workers have been left without work as factories have closed due to dwindling orders. Many of these workers are migrant women. With historically low wages, it is impossible to save and workers are now unable to pay for housing or food. We heard a number of stories from workers who have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis:

“I am Suraiya and I am working as helper for last 4 months in Interlink Apparels Ltd. I have a daughter of 5 years old and a son of 10 years old. 10 years ago, I had early marriage at the age of 16. I did not work in the garment factory before but it was very difficult for us to run the family with the sole income of my husband. Due to the struggle of severe poverty I came to Dhaka city four months back and joined in a garment factory. My husband used to run a tea stall in Gazipur area. We have to pay 4000 bdt as house rent. It is still a struggle to run a family of four members after paying half of the wage for house rent.

Due to the lockdown, my husband cannot run his tea stall anymore and I have been laid off by my factory. I do not know whether I will get my full wage or not. We do not have any income now but we have to pay our house rent, we have to feed our children. The situation is the worst now. After paying the house rent we will not have any money to have our food even. We do not know what will happen to us.” – Suraiya, 26

“My factory is a sweater factory where I work in knitting section. In November, 2019 the factory was declared closed informing over the phone without paying the due wage. When we asked the wage for that period the management informed that, if you want to continue the work without wage come into the office, otherwise we need not to come.

The factory re-opened on February 8, 2020. We got the wage of February at the beginning of March then again the factory has closed. The factory declared closure and we are worried about the wages as we were not paid for March. The Eid is ahead and we are worried about our Eid bonus as well.

There are four members in our family and we are going through terrible suffering due to poverty. We are surviving somehow by having only one time meal a day and the condition is same among other co-workers as well. We do not have any money in our hand now and the shops are not allowing further buying without paying the prior dues. The landlord is also asking for the rent and asking to leave the house if unable to pay the rent. Where we will go and what we will eat now? When we do not have any food, maintaining social distance and thinking about hygiene issues seems like a luxury to us. We need support to live.” – Md Shahin Alam

Image: National Garment Workers Federation

“I work in a garment factory. Our factory has laid us off and we have not received the due wages. We are worried about not getting paid, but if we do that the amount will not be in full. They will deduct our wage. According to the labor law I have heard that, we can get the half of the wage for the laid off period but that will be very small in amount. How we will manage our house rent and food with this amount? I went to the local government official for the government’s relief support but the officer said as the government is supporting the RMG sector that I am not eligible for this support.” – Mos. Laboni Akter Salma

These are just a few stories of the millions of garment workers impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. We need to hold brands and retailers accountable and ensure that garment workers are provided for in this time of crisis.

We are still fundraising to support as many women and girls as possible with our emergency appeal. You can donate by clicking here. 


Domestic Violence: The Second Pandemic

Image: UNICEF/Nesbitt

Wan Fei, the founder of an anti-domestic violence NGO in China reported a huge increase in the country’s domestic violence cases in February. Jingzhou, a province in Hubei, received 3 times more reports in February 2020 than in the previous year. As cases of Covid-19 began to climb around the world, so did cases of domestic violence.

As the world’s attention was focused on the pandemic, women’s rights activists and service providers warned us that domestic violence victims would be overlooked, survivor services would be de-prioritised and the fear and tension during the crisis would result in a sharp increase in cases. As we saw the numbers of domestic violence cases rapidly increase in China where the pandemic started, we could assume that this pattern would follow in other countries. This assumption was proven to be true, as there has been an increase in domestic violence cases as lockdowns started all over the world.

Domestic abuse was a global human right issue even in pre-pandemic times. According to statistics, 1 in 3 women face physical or sexual violence, mostly perpetuated by an intimate partner. While this makes violence against women the most widespread human rights abuses, it is also the least reported. Domestic abuse is often still viewed as a ‘normal’ act due to women’s subordinate position in society and families. Other reasons may include fear, lack of resources and support, or illegal status of refugees. The last is because women who do not have a right to stay permit often do not dare to go to the police in fear of being deported. This is why it is important to note that the domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, Nicole Jacobs, encouraged women with illegal status not to fear deportation but to report abuses.

The women who experience violence are vulnerable to sexual, reproductive and mental health risks. For example, victims are twice as likely to suffer from depression and 1.5 times more likely to get STIs. These risks are increased in times of conflict, let it be economic crisis, civil war, or a disease outbreak. It is therefore safe to assume that this will also be the case for millions of women across the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic. While for some of us staying home means safety, for many women and children home means the opposite. The quarantine poses a special situation as women are trapped inside with the abusers, who are more easily triggered by things due to being in such a stressful situation. It is important to note however, that the pandemic does not cause domestic abuse, but creates ‘conductive contexts’.

We have seen several cases of the increase of domestic violence cases globally. For example in the USA, a domestic violence hotline in Portland, Oregon doubled in only one week in March. The American national domestic violence hotline reported a dozens of callers whose abusers are using the coronavirus outbreak to control and isolate them. As everyone is focused on the public health crisis, hotlines fear that violence happening in the private sphere will be overlooked. Some states even seized this opportunity to make it more difficult to access abortion as ‘non-essential’ healthcare. Even though, logically, if domestic violence cases are going up so will unwanted pregnancies.

Numbers of cases of domestic abuse is also going up in Lebanon. Calls to the domestic violence hotline increased by 110% in March 2020. The NGO Abaad started a movement dubbed #LockDownNotLockUp, where people stood outside their balconies hanging sheets with the number of the domestic abuse hotline.

Image: PATRICK BAZ/Abaad/AFP via Getty Images.

Activists in Italy reported a drop in calls to the helpline centre only to receive a record amount of text messages and emails. As victims are forced to be in the same rooms as their abusers they often cannot voice their problems out loud and this is the only way they can let others know what is happening. It is also important to remember that if women are afraid to ring helplines, but numbers of reports are still increasing globally, how many more cases are happening that goes unreported.

In the UK calls to the national abuse hotline went up by 65% in March. Another hotline, Respect, had a 26.86% increase in calls but a 125% increase in website recordings in the week starting 30 March. This shows how women in Italy are not alone, women in the UK are often unable to make phone calls and try for a silent solution as well. Additionally, The  Men’s Advice Line, who care for male victims of domestic abuse, also had an increase in calls of 16.6% and an increase of website recordings 42%.

Avon and Somerset police reported a 20.9% increase in domestic abuse incidents in two weeks, from 718 to 868. The founder of Counting Dead Women, Karen Ingala Smith, recorded at least 16 women who were killed by men in the UK between 23 March and 12 April. This is at least twice as much as the average in the last 10 years. The domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, Nicole Jacobs, said police are ready to deal with a spike in domestic abuse calls. The leader of the Women’s Equality party called for special police powers to evict perpetrators from homes under the lockdown, and for authorities to waive court fees for the protection orders.

In early May the government pledged £76 million new funding for domestic and sexual violence support, vulnerable children & modern slavery, but the EVAW Coalition is calling for more detail on how the money will be distributed. They are also asking the government to follow the BAME demand for ethnicity monitoring of all COVID- 19 cases, as BAME communities are disproportionately affected and therefore BAME communities and organisations deserve ring fenced funding to address this issue. As lockdown has continued, there has been a shift in awareness regarding the risk of domestic violence. Supermarkets, one of the only few places that remained open during lockdown, have run initiatives including Tesco included the national hotline on their receipts and Morrison’s opened safe places in their pharmacies where those concerned can get advice from trained consultants.

Image: AP Photo/Jenny Kane

Although we’re nearing the end of the UK’s nearly three-month lockdown, this wave of domestic violence the effects on the survivors will be long-lasting. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that support services are available to them. The Circle has supported Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis with its new text helpline, in order to reach vulnerable women and girls who may not be able to speak on the phone. We have also made grants to Irise Uganda, to support them with their emergency relief and domestic violence prevention work.

Some general and specific advice for people living in the UK

Hotlines

  • England: The National Domestic Abuse Helpline is 0808 2000 247, available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. You can visit their website for more information.
  • England: The Respect phone line 0808 8024040 is open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. You can visit their website for more information.
  • Scotland: The Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is 0800 0271234 24, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Visit their website here.
  • Northern Ireland: The 24-Hour Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline is 0808 8021414, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. More information here.
  • Wales: The Live Fear Free Helpline is 08088010800, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They also have a website.
  • If you are a man experiencing domestic abuse call 0808 8010327 or visit their advice line.

Police

  • You can make silent 999 calls to the police by waiting for the call handler to pick up making some kind of a cough or any sound at all and pressing 5,5.

Bright Sky

  • The app can be disguised for people worried about partners checking their phones, provided support and information for victims.

Here are some precautions you can take to look out for each other:

  • If you are a postal worker, delivery driver, food delivery company or a carer who still visits houses, keep an eye out for any signs of abuse and to report any concerns to the police.
  • Neighbours should pay extra attention in hearing shouts, cries, or any noise that could be associated with violence. In case you suspect something bad is happening in a neighbouring house/flat please call the police.

Click here to donate to The Circle’s Women and Girls Solidarity Fund!

This article was written by Csenge. Csenge is a university student, a volunteer, and a feminist. She is originally from Hungary, but has started my university in London, which she loves.


Now is the Time: Impactful Change in the Fashion Industry

Image: Better Work, ILO/IFC

Non-essential retail shops in England re-opened today and garment retailers including Primark, TK Maxx and Nike were met with long queues of eager shoppers. Although for many this will signal the beginning of the end in terms of the UK’s nearly three-month lockdown, for the workers who produce our clothing, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will be long lasting.

We have seen many brands and retailers abandon their suppliers in time of need, as clothing orders dwindled and factories in large garment producing countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, were forced to close. Although some brands have made commitments to pay workers for orders already fulfilled, many have shown a complete disregard for the rights and livelihoods of the most vulnerable in their supply chain and some point blank refused to pay, including Kohl’s who used force majeure clauses in contracts to avoid paying for clothing already made and ready to ship. We cannot forget their actions and fall back into our old consumer driven behaviours. Now is the time for change.

Now more than ever, we are examining the inequalities that persist throughout our society and nowhere is that more apparent than in the garment industry. Of the some 74 million textile workers worldwide an estimated 80% are women, many of whom are women of colour, single and migrants. In Pakistan, it has been predicted that 1 million workers will lose their jobs as a result of the crisis and in Bangladesh some 2.27 million workers have been affected by cancelled orders. Many of these workers are young women who are often the family’s primary breadwinner. For them, and for all those employed in the fast fashion industry, the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic must not be forgotten.

Now more than ever is the time to introduce legal mechanisms that will protect these workers from weak contractual agreements that have been exposed over the last few months, poverty wages that do not allow them to save for periods of uncertainty, and unsafe working conditions that put their lives at risk.

The Circle has provided grants to partners in Bangladesh to provide immediate emergency relief to garment workers and their families who have been left destitute, but core to our work is the goal of building robust legal frameworks to ensure that these women can work with the dignity and rights that they are entitled to. With The Lawyers Circle, we are advocating for the fundamental right of a living wage to be introduced for garment workers by bringing about legislation that will ensure that a living wage is paid by fashion brands to the millions of women and men in their global supply chains. This legislation is vital to prevent further poverty as global economies move into recession.

What can you do?


New Report an Important Addition to the Due Diligence Debate

Image: Stefan Lechner

Today sees the release of the report, “Making Human Rights Due Diligence Frameworks Work for Small Farmers and Workers” – commissioned by the Fair Trade Advocacy Office (FTAO) with Brot für die Welt, and written by the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute, based in part on research shared by The Circle.

The report explores how human rights due diligence (HRDD), can have a positive impact on small farmers and workers in the agriculture and textile sector and on how fair purchasing practices, living wages and living incomes can be addressed by HRDD frameworks and instruments. It concludes with recommendations for future legislative frameworks.

Human rights due diligence is defined by the UN Guiding Principles as, “An ongoing risk management process… in order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how [a company] addresses its adverse human rights impacts.” This is currently, predominantly, a voluntary process that businesses undertake and as such there is little legal recourse for abuses found in global supply chains. This has led some critics to view current processes as little more than a bureaucratic tick-boxing exercise.

However, this trend seems to be changing, with some countries introducing laws that include legal sanctions (such as France’s Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law) and a commitment by Justice Didier Reynders at the EU Commission to introduce mandatory – cross-sectorial – due diligence laws for businesses in 2021.

This report is an important contribution to future debates on HRDD – the issue of implementation and on the ground impact on the lives of workers needs to be built in to any new legislation from the very beginning in order to make it effective.

In particular we welcome the report’s emphasis on the explicit inclusion of living wages and living incomes within due diligence frameworks as, “…fundamental to respecting internationally recognised human rights – either as rights themselves or as preconditions for other priority rights…”

As noted in the report, “… existing laws and regulations are not sufficient to ensure living wages, living incomes or fair trading practices in international supply chains… HRDD frameworks do not, at present, guarantee that insufficient wages or incomes will be covered and adequately addressed by such frameworks. […] HRDD frameworks need to make explicit reference to trading practices and systemic issues… in particular… living wages and living incomes throughout the supply chain.” (p.33)

International wage setting is often avoided in policy discussions, as it is seen as too complex an area to legislate. However, we strongly agree with the report that living wages are a right in themselves and a precondition for other priority rights – and therefore must be explicitly included in any future mandatory due diligence legislation.

Read the FTAO full report here: Making Human Rights Due Diligence Frameworks Work for Small Farmers and Workers

 


Force Majeure and Covid-19: A Guide for Suppliers in the Garment Industry

Image: Getty Images

Due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, many Western retailers have cancelled orders, demanded discounts and in some cases refused to pay for orders already completed. These cancellations have had a devastating effect on garment workers in global supply chains – effectively abandoning some of the world’s most vulnerable workers.

Brands have justified their actions by claiming that Covid-19 constitutes an event of force majeure. But what is force majeure? Does it apply in this case? And what legal rights does a supplier have if a brand cancels or refuses to pay on this basis?

Working in partnership with Traidcraft Exchange, The Circle is proud to publish a briefing for suppliers on force majeure.

The briefing provides background to the meaning and application of force majeure and highlights steps suppliers can take in their negotiations with brands and retailers when force majeure is used to renege on a contract or purchasing order.

Read the full briefing here: Force Majeure and Covid-19: A Guide for Suppliers in the Garment Industry

 
Early indications (from April) estimated a total of £20 billion of orders worldwide had been cancelled, although this figure may now be lower as some brands have backtracked due to public pressure. Industry insiders estimate 60 million garment workers will struggle to weather the crisis as many go without pay and face being fired.

“As far as buyers are concerned, there has never been any real room for negotiations,” according to one major garment supplier in India. And yet, as noted by the briefing:

“…a brand cannot rely on force majeure to get out of a contract that is merely difficult or less profitable. Force majeure is not a cure for a contract that is no longer practical or economically viable for a brand or retailer.”

 
Brands must take responsibility – to stand by their contracts, their suppliers, and the global multitude of workers who have helped generate their profits over these last decades.

 

Image: Fabeha Monir for The New York Times


Women and Girls Solidarity Fund: Impact So Far

 

We want to say a huge thank you to all of our supporters, members, allies and friends who have donated to our emergency appeal that we launched to respond to the additional challenges that the women and girls in our projects are facing during this crisis. Thanks to your efforts, we have been able to directly support marginalised women and girls across the globe. We have already made emergency grants to projects support projects in Uganda and Scotland.  

Emergency Supplies in Uganda

We have provided funds to Irise International so that they can provide provision and protection to vulnerable women and child-led households in Uganda. Women, unable to leave their houses for fear of police brutality, are struggling to feed their children or access reproductive healthcare and contraception. Irise is working with local government to deliver essential supplies to vulnerable women including food, hand sanitiser, menstrual pads and educational materials.  

After ten days of distribution, Irise have been able to reach a total of 398 vulnerable people in 93 households with 136 emergency relief packs.  

This is Jess. She is 18 years old and is the sole carer for these children aged 3 and 5. She’s been working as a hairdresser, but like so many others, has been unable to work during lockdown and faces terrifying uncertainty. Irise have been able to deliver essential supplies to her and will ensure that she is able to cope over the coming weeks.  

Irise are also using funds to ensure safeguarding within the community. They are working with the local government’s probation service to report and follow-up with vulnerable girls and young people. Cases include identifying three sisters aged 19-13 years old, who have been forced into prostitution to survive. Irise was able to provide them with vital supplies and will continue to work with the Gender Officer and District Office to safeguard these girls.  

Survivor Services in Scotland

Across the UK, three million women experience some form of gender-based violence every year, but these numbers have risen dramatically as social isolation policies have left women and girls vulnerable to abuse. Estimates suggest that there will be 15 million additional cases of domestic violence every 3 months of lockdown globally. Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis provides free and confidential support to girls and women who have experienced rape, sexual assault and sexual violence. Due to the UK’s lockdown, the centre are unable to offer their drop-in service that is a lifeline for survivors. We have provided the centre with funds to increase website capacity and launch a dedicated text support service for survivors to access counselling and support. This service will allow the centre to respond to the needs of sexual violence who are not in a position to phone the counsellors. This service will provide vital support for at least 1,500 women and girls.  

 

 

Supporting Garment Workers

With the money that our supporters have raised, we will be able to provide food and medical supplies to 500 garment workers in Bangladesh who have been left destitute. Supporting garment workers is crucial at this time. As soon as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, major garment companies responded by pushing risk and costs down the supply chain. Garment workers in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Pakistan have been left without work with factories being forced to close due to dwindling orders. Many of these workers are migrant women. With historically low wages, making it impossible to accumulate savings, these workers are now struggling to pay for housing or essential supplies. We are working with partners to provide emergency relief packages containing food, protective masks and soap.  

The need is only going to increase as some of the world’s poorest countries begin to feel the full force of Covid-19. We have long been there for the world’s most vulnerable women and we will continue to do so at this time of great emergency.  

If you can, support our emergency appeal by donating and sharing and allow us to reach even more women and girls.  


The Impact of COVID-19 on Garment Workers

 

The Circle’s Living Wage Team consider the impact of COVID-19 on garment workers and the fashion industry and discuss why, more than ever, a living wage needs to be recognised as a fundamental human right.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the extreme vulnerability of workers in global garment supply chains as hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs and livelihoods as a result of demand drying up and brands cancelling manufacturing orders.

The pandemic highlights the weak contractual agreements suppliers have with brands and retailers and lays bare the limitations of the current approach to protecting worker’s rights. For years companies have preferred voluntary codes of conduct, arguing that they can self-regulate their behaviour. Recent events show these have failed – and that we need legal mechanisms to strengthen the responsibilities companies have, to uphold the rights of workers in their supply chain. This issue has never been so important. Understanding exactly what those responsibilities entail is key as we go forward into debates about the recovery of garment manufacturing and how to structure a fair and sustainable supply chain. The Circle’s Living Wage Project can play an important role in creating a space for this, providing legal expertise, facilitating discussion and collaborating with key stakeholders to bring legal solutions that will work.

How is COVID-19 impacting garment workers?

The full economic and social impact of COVID-19 on workers in the garment supply chain is as yet unknown, but the effect is global. Economies are slowing, many tipping into recession. Shops have closed, demand for fashion has dried up and companies are facing huge losses in revenue. In an effort to bolster much needed liquidity to keep them afloat, many brands and retailers are aggressively cutting costs overseas, in effect shifting the risk onto their suppliers. As a result, many companies are refusing to honour their contracts with suppliers, either through non-payment of orders already complete or in process, refusal to pay for materials already purchased by factories, cancellation of future orders or forcing the extension of payment deadlines.

The Workers Rights Consortium estimate there are a total of 50 million workers in production factories worldwide. Early indications estimate a total of £20 billion of orders worldwide have been cancelled, and in Bangladesh alone, the second biggest apparel producer, an estimated $6 billion in export revenue is estimated to be lost. This in turn is devastating for textile workers who are losing their livelihoods and sometimes their homes as a result. In Pakistan 1 million workers are set to lose their jobs while reports from Bangladesh indicate some 2.27 million workers are affected by cancelled orders. Many of these workers are young women, often their family’s primary wage earner and the impact on them will be devastating.

There is also the issue of the impact of the pandemic on the workers themselves, who risk exposure and lack essential protection such as face masks. Workers therefore have limited ability to protect themselves and limited access to services such as childcare facilities, medical insurance or hazard pay.

While we recognise that many people are also losing their jobs in the West, here there are regulations around corporate behaviour and employment standards that garment workers in the Global South are not protected by. Additionally, many garment workers live in countries with no social protection mechanisms and having received poverty wages for years have no savings to offer any form of buffer in even the short term, let alone if the crisis continues for months – as is predicted. The nature of global supply chains is such that companies in Western markets have profited for years from cheap labour in production countries and now are able to withdraw without any responsibility towards the millions of workers who have helped generate their huge profits.

What should we expect fashion brands to do?

In the first instance brands and retailers must honour their contracts and ensure that the workers who have made their products are paid, that is the minimum. Secondly, brands need to work with their suppliers and as far as is possible support them to keep their workers employed. For many workers if they lose their employment status, they not only lose their income but also risk falling off the radar completely should any state support to factories become available.

In the coming months, questions around how to establish social protection floors which will support workers will need to be addressed, and brands and retailers must be part of that conversation.

How do I know what brands are doing?

It is difficult to know the details of what individual brands are doing but the Workers Rights Consortium (an independent labour rights monitoring organisation) are tracking brands and their commitment to pay in full for orders completed or in production in countries such as Bangladesh. See here.

Another reliable source of information is Clean Clothes Campaign’s live blog, which is updated daily with news reports, categorised by country, detailing the impact of COVID-19 on garment workers around the world.

Why is this important to the Living Wage Project?

The aim of the Living Wage Project is to bring about legislation in the form of a new EU legal framework, to ensure the payment of a living wage by fashion brands to millions of women and men in global garment supply chains. A living wage is a wage that goes beyond a minimum wage and provides the worker with the means to not just survive but also to put some money aside for education and savings. This means they can provide for their family with a buffer against the worst conditions of poverty. Such legislation is more important than ever going forward. Although we don’t know what supply chains will look like after the pandemic is under control, there is no reason to believe globalisation will markedly change  and there is the real possibility that conditions could further worsen for workers in global supply chains as economies move into recession.

Does this change the work of the Living Wage Project?

Yes and No. What the pandemic has shown us more than ever is that voluntarism does not work. The ‘trust’ we have that companies will do the right thing by their workers is misplaced – it’s not enough. Depending upon CSR (corporate social responsibility) to address employment conditions is always going to be piecemeal, and dependent upon the good will and resources of an individual company. To that extent our work going forward on the living wage is critical, strengthening human rights legislation through ensuring workers get paid a living wage.

What can I do to support garment workers?

We must continue to put pressure on fashion brands and retailers to do the right thing by their suppliers and support workers where we can. As individuals it can seem overwhelming and we wonder what role we can play, but brands do listen to customers. Below are some suggestions for action:

Write to the brands

Write to brands that you buy from asking them what they are doing to ensure that garment workers are being paid during this period. Are they honouring their payment for orders already placed? Can they vouch that the payments made are reaching the workers?

For guidance on what to write, you can find a useful template at Fashion Revolution. If you would rather sign a petition, then have Traidcraft Exchange have a letter you can sign your name to.

Donate to The Circle

A donation to The Circle’s Living Wage project will mean we can continue in our work to ensure that workers are paid a living wage. By donating to this project and you are helping to create a “race to the top” to protect the right of millions of workers to receive a living wage. Every contribution will make a difference.

Updates

As a result of ongoing campaigns, it has been officially reported that:

  • Awaj estimates 71% of garment workers were paid in April.
  • Garment Diaries estimates 86% of garment workers were paid.
  • BGMEA reports 2,200 factories have paid workers
  • Wage data details are here. 
  • According to a Brand Tracker, regularly updated by the Worker Rights Consortium, over a dozen large companies, including Uddin’s buyers, as well as Primark, Bestseller, Walmart (Asda), Under Armour, Kohl’s, Ross Dress for Less, Urban Outfitters, and Gap Inc. (Old Navy, Athleta, Banana Republic), among others, have canceled orders or renegotiated payment terms to demand discounts and payment delays.

The Circle Joins Civil Society Coalition Calling on the EU to Re-Design the Textile Industry’s Broken Business Model

 

Today brings the launch of the Civil Society European Strategy for Sustainable Textile, Garments, Leather and Footwear, a shadow strategy developed by a diverse coalition of 65 social and environmental NGOs.

The Circle is pleased to be a signatory to this document, joining with others to call on the EU to promote and support development of a Textile, Garments, Leather and Footwear (TGLF) industry that respects human rights, creates decent jobs and adheres to high environmental and responsible governance standards throughout its value chain, in the EU and beyond.

“This strategy is more relevant now than ever, as the coronavirus pandemic impacts global supply chains and increases the vulnerability of garment workers in some of the world’s poorest countries,” says Dr Sharon McClenaghan of The Circle’s Living Wage Project. “Stronger regulation is needed to address the negative impact this industry has on the environment and to protect workers around the world from the harmful employment practices of brands and retailers.”


Press Release: Coronavirus strengthens case for new EU textile laws – 65 civil society groups publish joint vision

Executive summary: Civil Society European Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, Garments, Leather & Footwear

Full text of the strategy: Civil Society European Strategy for Sustainable Textiles, Garments, Leather & Footwear


The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the extreme vulnerability of workers in global garment supply chains as never before as shops close and demand for fashion dries up.

Early indications estimate a total of £20 billion of orders worldwide have been cancelled,1 and in Bangladesh alone, the second biggest apparel producer, an estimated $6 billion in export revenue is estimated to be lost.2 This in turn is devastating for textile workers who are losing their livelihoods and sometimes their homes as a result. In Pakistan 1 million workers are set to lose their jobs3 while reports from Bangladesh indicate some 2.27 million workers are affected by cancelled orders.4 The Workers Rights Consortium estimate there are a total of 50 million workers in production factories worldwide.5 Many of these workers are young women, often their family’s primary wage earner.

“The current crisis is unprecedented,” added Sharon. “At the moment no one knows quite what the industry will look like when the pandemic ends. Our concern is that when supply chains open up again these workers will be more vulnerable to exploitation than before. We desperately need regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure that does not happen.”