Garment workers around the world experience low wages and exploitation. This is nothing new, but Jessica Simor QC, a barrister at Matrix chambers who has worked extensively on issues of fair pay and human rights in fashion, says: “Covid has thrown a much brighter light on the inequity of the whole system. [It] has exposed the incredible imbalance between the worker, the factory owner and the retailer – the biggest force lying with the retailer.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has created fresh injustices. Throughout lockdown, garment workers in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam have faced destitution and starvation as big-name fashion retailers have cancelled £20bn in orders. “A lot of these fast fashion companies have pulled contracts where fabric has been ordered, received, cut and sewn,” said Raakhi Shah, CEO of the Circle, at an emergency panel the not-for-proft organisation held this week on fast fashion and slavery. “The brands haven’t fulfilled their side of the agreement. And these thousands of garment workers have been left destitute.”
In Leicester, where exploitation has been known about for years, the context of the coronavirus has refocused attention on garment workers – forced to work throughout lockdown, despite high levels of infection.
It is easy to feel helpless but, says Shah: “There are lots of ways that you can make a difference around this.”
Speaking of whether change is possible to what, at times, seems an intractable problem, the Circle’s founder, Annie Lennox (formerly the Eurythmics frontwoman), dialling in from Los Angeles, said: “It’s like climbing a mountain, it’s not going to be overnight, but it is possible.”
Some things, such as donating to funds for garment workers facing destitution, can make an immediate difference. Others involve collective action and require longer term, structural change.
Put pressure on the brands to #PayUp
Throughout the pandemic, organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label and Remake have put pressure on brands to pay factories for cancelled orders. Some brands have paid, some have refused to pay and some, according to the environmental journalist Lucy Siegle, who chaired the panel, “are saying that they have, [but] they haven’t quite in the way that we need them to,” for instance delaying payments or paying for parts of orders but not others.
“Expecting factories to foot this bill when factories don’t necessarily have any accumulated wealth is outrageous,” says Siegle.
The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) has created a tracker to show which brands have paid in full and which haven’t. “It gets its intelligence from factories and workers,” says Siegle, and is a good way to put pressure on those companies that have yet to pay up. Primark, for instance, according to WRC, “pledged to pay for about $460m in orders it had previously cancelled”, but “did not, however, disclose what percentage of its total unpaid commitments this figure represents”. C&A, which reinstated some orders after initially cancelling them, is delaying delivery and payment “for as long as a year on some of the orders it has nominally reinstated”.
Individual action needs to feed into structural reform, says Siegle, who suggests people should join Labour Behind the Label or support the Clean Clothes Campaign. She also advises emailing brands to call on them to pay up.
Donate to the Circle’s The Women and Girls Solidarity Fund
The Circle launched a fund, called The Women and Girls Solidarity Fund, which is supporting female garment workers – 80% of the workforce are women – at the start of lockdown. These women are often the sole breadwinners for their families and the fund provides them with emergency food packages and supplies such as face masks and soap.
Just £20 buys a food parcel and they have already managed to help thousands of families. While Shah calls the Circle’s emergency fund a “sticking plaster in the short term”, it is vital, given that, without it, many garment workers might have faced starvation.
Question your role
Time and again fast fashion brands defend their actions by saying “it’s what the consumer wants”. Shah says those with purchasing power should “be at the forefront now”.
One way to disrupt the system is by voting with your wallet. Speaking at the panel, Livia Firth, the founder of Eco-Age, says consumers’ actions can send a strong message. “Only by slowing down will we send a very strong signal that we are not going on like we have for the last 20 years. Let’s show them that the consumer doesn’t want it.”
Siegle, though, believes the situation has gone beyond advising people how to shop more responsibly: “This is an emergency,” she says. She thinks individuals should question their stance. “Whether it’s about warehouse staff in the UK or garment workers in Bangladesh or Leicester, it’s about who you stand with. A lot of people are so loyal to brands and are always giving them the benefit of the doubt. [The brands] are not going to change. Go and stand alongside the garment workers and warehouse staff, the workers in Leicester who have been denied union representation for years, not just now.”
She says people need to be more informed: “If you usually spend a portion of your day on social media looking at clothes on Pretty Little Thing or Boohoo, could you devote some of that time to reading the Clean Clothes campaign liveblog and might that cause a liberation and cognitive shift?”
Hold brands to account
“The long-term work needs to be on structural reform and holding these brands and retailers to account,” says Siegle.
She advises going back and reading reports, from those by the Circle on the living wage to the Environmental Audit Committee’s 2019 report Fixing Fashion, none of the recommendations of which, including a suggested 1p per garment levy to tackle fast fashion, were taken up. “Why weren’t those recommendations taken up?” asks Siegle. “We need to demand that they are.”
Referring to Leicester, she says: “These are illegal working practices and you have a right to contact your MP and call for a transparent inquiry into working practices around fast fashion companies.”
Simor’s concern now is that “criminal proceedings follow – holding those responsible who should be held responsible”. She is concerned that the victims will be further victimised and we will end up with “the victims suffering more because it is quite possible that a number of them were here unlawfully, were trafficked or were asylum seekers”. It is important, she says, that we “keep an eye on this story”.
‘Even out your response’
What has happened in Leicester is shocking, and there are hopes that the reaction to the exploitation of workers there may have some positive knock-on effects for how we react to abuses of those working in the garment industry around the world.
“It’s always a bit shocking when this race to the bottom happens in our context,” says Firth. “We always consider the lives of people close to us more precious than the lives of those in far away countries.”
As Siegle puts it: “Even out your response to it.” It might sound obvious, but it’s about having the same outrage for what is happening to those making clothes for fast fashion in Cambodia or Pakistan as those in Leicester.
Use the correct terms
Simor wants us to take note of the use by Priti Patel of the word “slavery” in reference to exploitation in Leicester. It is “extremely important”, she says, “that the home secretary has used the word ‘slavery’ about these practices. If the home secretary is willing to recognise this as slavery in Leicester, then the question arises as to how this can be acceptable anywhere in the world? That’s something that has to be challenged and we have to take ministers on.”
Call for fairer laws internationally
Obviously, UK laws apply in Leicester, but in other countries where garments are being produced for consumers in the west, the UK has no jurisdiction. But, says Simor: “We need corporate responsibility to extend to where products are made. We have to somehow come up with some kind of controls within our jurisdiction that have an impact on those other jurisdictions.”
She cites cases of the EU legislating for “actions and inactions outside of the EU”, such as those involving conflict diamonds, data breaches, bribery and even the food supply chain.
“Most of those areas are simply concerned with money or data and what we’re saying is there’s no reason you can’t extend those ideas and principles to human beings,” she says. While she is working on a project to “develop law that takes some of the ideas from those bits of legislation and apply them to wage laws”, EU law isn’t necessarily something individuals can have an impact on.
What individual action needs to do, says Siegle, is “feed into structural reform – it’s the same as climate.” For starters, we can be more aware: “It’s great if someone wants to inform themselves – and if they want to become a barrister, that would be great!”