Each month, we’ll tell you what we’ve been reading at The Circle to get you feeling engaged, informed, and inspired by the global rights movement. You might find an interview, a long read, a novel, or just a short news update – so, here is our round up for May!
On 5 October 2017, the New York Times published an article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey that helped change the world.Kantor and Twohey out-maneuvered Harvey Weinstein, his team of defenders and private investigators, convincing some of the most famous women in the world – and some unknown ones – to go on the record. Three years later, it led to his conviction. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Defined a Movement, is a gripping account of this story, but more interestingly, an examination of the structures that allowed Weinstein to repeat the same violence over and over, seemingly unscathed.
This blog collects daily information about how the new Coronavirus COVID-19 is influencing garment workers’ rights in supply chains around the world. It is updated daily as new information comes in from media and the Clean Clothes Campaign global network.
The UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) published an article on 20 April 2020 about the effect that coronavirus is having on victims of domestic abuse around the world. UNHCR explain that isolation policies mean that there is less movement, and this increases the risk of intimate partner violence. Young women “may be forced into survival sex or child marriages by their families.” UNHCR explain what they are doing to support women and girls.
On 6 April 2020 Alice Aedy launched Frame of Mind which is a platform aiming to celebrate incredible female storytellers in documentary film, photography, journalism and writing. Aedy is a documentary photographer, filmmaker and activist focusing on migration, women’s rights and environmental issues. The focus will be about how female storytellers have explored social issues and created social change. Aedy shared a shocking fact from the New York Times that it is estimated only 0.5% of recorded history includes stories by women. Aedy’s project is important, exciting, and definitely one to stay updated with! Freda interviewed Aedy about her work as a female photographer which you can read here
Selections made by Anna Renfrew and Georgia Bridgett.
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.
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.
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.
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.
COVID-19 is a threat to every country and community, but refugee camps are dealing with impossible circumstances and are housing some of the most vulnerable people in the world. They are nowhere near equipped to deal with a pandemic. This year the Guardian have been very focused on documenting the current conditions in the Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece. One article by Harriet Grant on 11th February 2020 – ‘UN calls for urgent evacuation of Lesbos refugee camp’ – makes no mention of Coronavirus. But when we consider the devastating conditions that refugees are already facing daily, one cannot help but wonder how it is possible for them to survive coronavirus once it enters the camps. Refugees are already some of the most vulnerable people on the planet right now. How can we protect them against coronavirus when healthcare is already at crisis point? This is a question which is incredibly concerning for women and girls especially.
We know that there is a lot of information regarding COVID-19 and the impact that it will have on marginalised women and girls on the internet right now. We thought we’d share with you some of the articles and reports that we’ve been reading to help you keep informed.