Words || Madi Scott
As fashion trends change with every new season, the lives of those who make our clothes remain the same. Malnourished, underpaid, and tortured, the ‘new normal’ only means a downward spiral for garment workers.
2020 hasn’t exactly gone to plan. The outbreak of COVID-19 has affected all aspects of life, shutting down schools and offices, and halting our social lives and holidays. Whilst for many of us, the pandemic has left us well acquainted with our houses and the inner workings of Zoom, for countless others the ongoing effects of the pandemic have been catastrophic. While the media has continuously focused on reporting on the human toll of the pandemic, COVID-19 has had detrimental effects to all aspects of life.
Prior to the pandemic, Asian suppliers played an integral role within the garment industry, completing orders for multinational corporate labels such as Nike, ASOS and Gap. For countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan, the garment industry provided jobs for millions of people, with an estimated 3.6 million garment industry employees in Bangladesh alone. Whilst this industry has previously been plagued by low wages and the run on effects of the booming fast fashion industry, COVID-19 has provided an even harder blow.
Since the economic impact of the pandemic has been well reported, a great interest has been focused on the detrimental effects on the fashion labels themselves. The garment factories have been largely overlooked, and the backbone of the fashion industry has been grossly underappreciated. Whilst there is no underplaying the significant financial stress these multi-billion-dollar companies have had to endure over the past year, the immediate reaction to cancel in-production orders overseas has been largely overlooked.
As retail restrictions significantly slowed both profit sales and demand, numerous fashion labels cancelled or paused orders with garment factories, either refusing to pay or asking for extreme discounts. Numerous brands refused to pay for orders that had already been completed, as others changed and delayed already agreed upon terms bringing the garment industry to a complete standstill.
The Centre of Global Workers’ Rights estimate brands have cancelled or paused over $3 billion worth of completed goods in Bangladesh alone, financially affecting over two million workers. Globally it has been estimated that there is currently $40 billion worth of wages owed since the start of the crisis to garment workers.
In response to this unfair situation, Ayesha Barenblat, the founder of Remake – a storytelling platform committed to building a conscious consumer movement, launched the hashtag #PayUp on March 30th demanding justice and exposing the guilty brands. With the addition of a petition that has gathered over 200 000 signatures, Remake stepped up to help moderate the crisis. Brands including Zara, Nike, Ralph Lauren, H&M and Gap were all named and shamed with the social media movement directly alleviating some of the pain.
Following the social media outcry and rapidly growing petition, over thirteen brands have agreed to pay up including Ralph Lauren, Levi’s and Nike. The campaign can be directly attributed to unlocking over $22 billion globally, with around 1 billion of this directly in Bangladesh. Whilst significant change has been made, there is still a long way to go with over twenty brands still needing to #PayUp including Primark, Urban Outfitters and T.J Maxx.
The fight is long from over, and while progress has been made, the future is uncertain. Not only are there still companies refusing to #PayUp, the long-term economic effects of the pandemic will be felt throughout the garment history for years to come, with smaller contracts more than likely to remain.
As the pandemic becomes long term and people start to get back to their new ‘normal’, it is more than likely the garment industry will once again be overlooked and forgotten. It is integral to keep the #PayUp pressure building and keep up the momentum holding corporations accountable.
So what can still be done?
As Remake said themselves: “We are just getting started”.
The movement is not slowing down – as of the 28th of August, Balmain, Moschino and Oscar de la Renta have all been named as brands that are unable to prove they have paid their garment workers. Although the movement has seen some progress, this latest development reveals the crisis is not just centred around fast fashion, luxury brands are guilty as well. Remake aims to outline the necessary steps needed to sustain the movement. Signing and sharing the change.org petition, donating to garment worker relief funds and most importantly asking the tough question when it comes to our favourite clothing brands.
In a 30 page report by the clean clothes campaign titled “Un(der)paid in The Pandemic” a call to action was made that cannot be unheard: “The only way to reverse the catastrophic loss to workers’ livelihoods and prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again is for brands to take immediate and lasting action”.
Brands must do better.