Amber Khan discusses the exploitation of garment workers across the fashion industry.
Fashions worst kept secret is the horrific working conditions of its garment workers. But as the Covid-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the world, big fashion brands have quickly abandoned millions of their workers, and an already horrific situation has become much worse. Millions of people across the poorest parts of Asia have been left devastated and insecure in the middle of the Covid-19 global health crisis.
This issue was brought into focus for many in July when Kylie Jenner came under fire for refusing to pay factory workers in Bangladesh who create garments for their Kendall + Kylie fashion line. Kylie even took the drastic move to limit her comments on Instagram in an effort to quell the backlash (instead of just paying the workers what they are owed, but that is clearly a bridge too far for the world’s first ‘self-made’ billionaire). The reality is this is not an isolated incident and several brands and retailers have cancelled orders which had already been produced or are outright refusing to pay for completed orders. By early April, in Bangladesh, a million garment workers had been sent home without pay or had lost their jobs after clothing brands, including Primark and Matalan, cancelled or suspended £2.4bn of existing orders. Workers are being fired without notice or being forced to come into work without any safety measures or equipment or risk losing their livelihoods.
According to a recent report by the UK based labour rights non-profit Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), garment factories are “using the pandemic as a cover to attack workers’ freedom of association.”, directly contravening international labour laws. The BHRRC report also found that 4,870 unionized garment workers have been targeted for dismissal after asking for protections against Covid-19 infection; others were let go after registering a new union. Cambodian union leader, Soy Sros, spent 55 days in jail over a Facebook post that called attention to union busting at her factory that makes luxury handbags for Michael Kors, Tory Burch, and Tapestry, the company that owns Kate Spade .
Closer to home, popular clothing retailer, Boohoo, is facing accusations of modern-day slavery. The retailer has been operating sweatshops in Leicester that pay their garment workers just £3.50 an hour in unsafe conditions with overcrowding and a lack of PPE. Workers' rights group Labour Behind the Label reported that staff at the Leicester factories were "being forced to come into work while sick with COVID-19”. Following the accusations of modern-day slavery, Boohoo have launched an investigation to review their supply chain. However, the Ethnical Trading Initiative has refused to give evidence to the investigation saying that the review “cannot be fully independent”, they have also criticised the focus of the independent inquiry and questioning the review’s “impartiality and breadth”.
Currently, the garment industry thrives on a culture of inequality and exploitation. Case in point, most of the garment workers in Leicester are from ethnic minority groups, largely from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh but also Somalia and Eastern Europe. These workers have been exploited due to their immigration status, language skills and lack of community support as well as higher unemployment rates.
Clothing companies have a penchant of whitewashing their practices behind a veneer of “corporate responsibility”. For example, H&M is particularly keen to push an image of ethical sustainability and responsibility, but they are also refusing to pay their Indian workers for completed orders during the pandemic. The t-shirts emblazoned with kitsch feminist slogans become almost dizzyingly ironic when they have been stitched together by girls working in squalid conditions who have then been unceremoniously fired from their job in the name of ‘protecting profits’.
Amongst the unprecedented madness of Covid-19, fashion brands feel they can get away with the mistreatment of their workers and are less accountable for their actions. Certain brands have chosen profit margins over the security and safety of their workers. However, despite the rising challenges, workers are mobilising, challenging and protesting their treatment at the hand of the big brands. They are courageously defying threats, violence, social oppression and norms to defend their fundamental human rights, as they remain on the brink of food and housing insecurity.
We have the power to contribute meaningfully to the garment workers’ fight and demand real commitments from fashion brands. We have a voice and collective responsibility to demand change from these brands and campaign for tangible action, in the form of rights and protections for workers across the world, as well as a living wage and safe working conditions. As consumers, the money we spend has political power and the agency to create change by just being careful and conscious in what we buy.
Other ways to help include donating to places like The Awaj Foundation, which was founded and led by garment workers in Bangladesh, who are organising aid for workers. There are also tools available to make buying ethically easier, The Worker Rights Consortium has a tracker that shows which brands have paid and those who have not. Finally, there is the Clean Clothes Campaign’s Fashion Checker, which gives consumers deeper insight into where clothing was made and the working conditions in which it was produced and gives access to real data from supply chains of the worlds’ biggest fashion brands including Primark, Bestseller and Topshop.
It is not enough to look for quality in the clothes that we buy, we must ensure that there is quality in the lives of the people who make them.
Amber Khan works as a commercial law paralegal and is studying for an LLM in Public International Law. She has written social and political commentary for a range of publications and is the current blog editor for the Young Fabians. She writes in a personal capacity.
She tweets at @amber_khan_