By Beatrice Tridimas
We’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic shut down restaurants, airports and pretty much anywhere that’s not your own backyard. We’ve seen populations unite in clapping for our carers, communities gather to support their vulnerable and a veteran celebrate his 100th Birthday by raising £12 million for the NHS.
Meanwhile, many industries are suffering losses as they are closed down and consumers choose to buy less and less. For an industry as complex and already wrought with difficulties as the fashion industry, COVID-19 is having insurmountable effects.
‘It’s a very confusing time, with very quick moving decisions being made that differ from brand to brand to country to country,’ Christina Hajagos-Clausen from global union, IndustriALL, tells me.
‘It’s important that governments, brands, suppliers and trade unions can all discuss a way to get wages paid.’
At the beginning of April, confusion over wages triggered spontaneous protests in Bangladesh’s capital. A clash erupted leaving two workers dead. The concern followed the government’s decision to close all public and private establishments, meaning workers were turned away from factory gates with no wages to take home.
Supply countries, like Bangladesh who have had around $3.18 billion worth of orders cancelled due to the pandemic, are not in a position to absorb the costs of industry shut-downs. Production rates are already so low it’s hard to meet minimum wages and comply with regulations. Employers are unable to contribute to social security systems, nor does the law require them to. With factories closing due to COVID-19, many employers have no choice but to furlough garment workers without guaranteed pay.
As the virus demolishes the demand for fast fashion, the world’s biggest retailers are taking huge hits. But instead of managing these losses, they are pushing the costs back on to their supply chains, cancelling orders and refusing to pay. In a survey of suppliers, over 90% reported that brands weren’t providing support to cover the costs of cancelled orders, furloughed staff or delayed payments.
‘We need to unite the industry around one common vision,’ Christina says. An adequate response to COVID-19 doesn’t just involve temporary measures to account for losses and protect workers while they’re out of work. The failure of brands to take responsibility for their supply chains highlights the dramatic power imbalances between supply countries and Western brands that the industry is structured around.
To respond to the crisis, the industry needs long-term, sector-wide reform.
Here’s an overview of what brands and organisations are doing in response to the effects of COVID-19 so far:
- At the end of March, signatories of the ACT agreement, including Inditex, H&M, Primark, and Next agreed to pay for completed orders.
- Most factories covered by The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety are thought to have shut down, with safety training in line with WHO guidelines being carried out over teleconference for any factories that do remain open.
- The ILO have released a Call to Action asking brands, governments and financial institutions to work together to protect workers’ income, health and employment. They include in their brief the vital point that immediate measures taken to deal with the effects of COVID-19 will be most effective if they have the view to strengthening social support systems in the long run, therefore committing to this statement will also be a commitment to working, over time, to establish strong and sustainable social security and protection systems within the garment supply chain. You can read the full report here.
- The South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union has ensured full pay for 80,000 workers during South Africa’s 6-week lockdown.
- Primark have announced the introduction of a wage fund which will raise money to help pay the wages of the garment workers affected by the cancellation of clothing orders.
- IndustriALL Union have called on the Bangladesh Prime Minister to consult unions and initiate an adequate response to the effects of COVID-19 on industry workers.
Whilst the industry has been forced to break down, we have the opportunity to review how it might be rebuilt for the better.
Here are some ways you can take action now and demand justice for supply chains:
- Use this template from Fashion Revolution to write to your favourite brands and demand they honour their commitments to their supply chains.
- Sign this petition calling on major brands to #PayUp.
- Buy a Loststock Box and support a garment worker for a week.
- Share this story and keep educating yourself about who makes your clothes and how you can help them!