The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the extreme vulnerability of garment workers, as clothing brands responded to the economic crisis triggered by this unprecedented public health emergency by cutting orders and refusing to pay for those. already in production.
The result has been massive job losses. An estimated 10 percent of the garment workforce suddenly found themselves unemployed, with many receiving no severance pay or even the wages they were already owed.
These workers are in producing countries which often do not offer social security or safety nets. They are desperate, hungry, unable to pay their rent or provide for their families. These workers are the backbone of the global trillion dollar garment industry and yet those at the top, the brands, speak lip service to their plight.
The current crisis in the garment industry began in February 2020, when workers in Southeast Asia were sent home without pay because the fabric from China failed to reach their factories. With wages always woefully inadequate, that first failed paycheck immediately sent many families from poverty to destitution.
As it became evident that there was no end in sight to the crisis, the International Organization of Employers (IOE), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and IndustriALL Global Union recognized the need for a response. coordinated and, in April 2020, launched a Call to Action (CtA) with the support of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
To date, more than 130 industry players, two-thirds of which are brands and retailers, have signed the CtA which aims to protect workers and garment manufacturers from the worst economic fallout and establish sustainable systems of social protection for workers.
While the CtA is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, workers in need of emergency relief cannot wait for its protections to be in place. In addition, some of the brands that have signed the CtA are now using it to excuse their continued inaction.
When asked in October 2020 what brands would do to ensure workers receive their full pay, Michael Levine, vice president and chief sustainability officer of Under Armor, who is a member of the group Working CtA, responded that brands “ are unable to make additional contributions ” beyond CtA. However, participating in CtA in no way relieves brands of their responsibility to ensure workers are paid, especially since brands are not obligated to remit funds to CtA.
The fact that the signing of the CtA does not offer absolution from supply chain responsibility should have been a no-brainer. The CtA working group decided early on to focus its efforts on eight priority countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan. This approach has left out countries like the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam which, according to reports from the ILO itself, are also experiencing massive layoffs in the garment industry and lack meaningful social security mechanisms. . Many brands that have signed the CtA, such as Primark, produce clothing in countries that are not prioritized by the program.
In addition, the CtA is unable to provide quick solutions to supply chain problems, even in the countries it prioritizes. Progress has been extremely slow. In an October update, the CtA announced “successes” in Bangladesh, where the European Union and the German government have committed 113 million euros ($ 135 million) – a commitment that has not was mobilized by the CtA, which only released an additional 1.8 million euros ($ 2.15 million) – as well as Indonesia, Cambodia and Ethiopia, where an ILO multi-donor initiative funded by the German government made available respectively 2.2 million, 1.95 million and 4.9 million euros ($ 2.63 million, $ 2.33 million and $ 5.86 million). No figures were given for the other priority countries.
According to our sources, even the largest funds that Bangladesh has received have enabled less than 2,000 workers to receive direct income support. Arguably, with no brand contribution obligation and no corresponding published figures, European taxpayers are paying for brand shortcomings through government donations.
These amounts are unfortunately insufficient to meet even a fraction of the urgent need for relief in the clothing industry. Last summer, we calculated garment workers in Bangladesh owed $ 500 million for the first three months of the pandemic alone. We have estimated the pay gap at over $ 400 million in Indonesia and nearly $ 125 million in Cambodia. Globally, garment workers owe at least $ 3 billion for the period between March and June 2020 alone. Not only is this an economic crisis, but the evidence shows that it is also a driver. for other labor rights violations, such as the fight against trade unions.
The plan to strengthen social protection in countries where it is currently lacking is of paramount importance, but workers also need immediate support. This is why unions and other workers’ rights organizations are demanding that brands publicly commit to a wage insurance and severance guarantee fund and assure workers in their supply chain that they are will be paid during this crisis and will receive the severance pay due to them if they lose their jobs. For just 10 cents per t-shirt, brands can ensure textile workers get the economic help they need now and strengthen unemployment protections for the future.
The industry must stop hiding behind initiatives that use public money to fill in the gaps they have intentionally taken advantage of for decades. Instead, they should be looking in their own pockets to solve problems in their own supply chains. Brands that pledge to put in place salary insurance and a severance guarantee fund will not balance the inequalities at the heart of an industry that has its roots in colonialism, but it will be a vital step for the better. rebuild. Paying what you owe is a foundation from which everything else should grow – nothing less is complicit in salary theft.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.