How can we support the women who make our clothes?
27th April 2021
Fast fashion has emerged as the dominant business model in the global apparel industry and has completely changed how this sector operates. The constant need for new clothes and the next ‘big trend’ in fashion has resulted in massive volumes of clothing being produced and sold at prices that appear too good to be true. Unfortunately, these prices are in fact usually too good to be true as someone, somewhere along the supply chain is paying the true cost. So how is it possible for fast fashion brands to sell clothes at very low prices and still ensure a fair wage for garment workers? The answer: It usually isn’t.
Approximately 80% of garment workers worldwide are women who often do not earn a living wage and therefore struggle to cover their basic needs such as food, rent, education and healthcare. Garment workers can be subjected to poor or unsafe working conditions and they do not always receive access to the employment rights and protections that they should be entitled to. The lack of rights for garment workers has been a major issue in the fashion industry for many years, but the Coronavirus crisis has illuminated the dire need for a rapid change in how garment workers are treated.
The onset of the Coronavirus pandemic left many people feeling uncertain and apprehensive about the future. Garment workers were no exception. Many large retailers, including Primark, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and Matalan, cancelled billions of dollars’ worth of orders, including orders already in production and orders that were fully completed. According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the onset of these cancellations presented disastrous scenarios for the garment industry, with one million garment workers in Bangladesh losing their jobs or being laid-off without pay.
“The Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) and Penn State University conducted a survey of almost 300 Bangladeshi garment suppliers in March 2020, which found that an astonishing 97% of garment suppliers had not been given any financial assistance to cover severance costs or the cost of furloughing their workers, by any brand.”
Aruna Kashyap, who is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian at the time, ‘‘The brands are trying to minimise their losses but the impact on the ground in Bangladesh has already been catastrophic and will spell disaster for millions of families.’’
So, what can we as consumers do to support garment workers and hold corporations accountable for such unethical production practices? Non-profit organisation Remake decided something had to be done to advocate for garment workers who were left jobless and unpaid for work already completed. This ultimately led to the creation of #PayUp social media campaign, which aimed to call out brands who refused to pay for their cancelled orders. Taking social media by storm, the #PayUp campaign’s global petition has garnered over 270,000 signatures, calling on big brands to essentially pay up what they owe. This petition had a massive impact over the past year with various retailers including Nike, H&M, Gap Inc., and Primark agreeing to provide garment workers with the payments they rightfully deserve. This campaign highlights the power of people coming together to stand-up for change. Without the pressure of social media activism, it is likely that many companies would never have agreed to honour their financial commitments to the garment industry. It’s an ongoing process and while, as of March 2021, the #PayUp campaign has unlocked $22 billion dollars globally which impacted 70 million garment workers, there are still many large brands who are yet to pay for cancelled orders.
Paying the garment industry what is owed is a basic responsibility. During the pandemic, garment worker wages have dropped by 21% according to WRC’s Hunger in the Apparel Supply Chain November 2020 report. The growing inequalities are strikingly clear as many brands continue to generate huge profits, while garment workers are increasingly struggling to put meals on the table for their families. Researching information, generating awareness, signing petitions, and encouraging others to take a stand is where we can start to support the women who make our clothes. The only way forward is holding businesses fully accountable for their actions and insisting on fair working conditions and pay for garment workers all around the world. We can’t ignore this clear violation of human rights any longer.