Ethical Fashion Activists Continue Fighting for Garment Workers' Safety

A moving video illustrates the challenges these women have faced due to COVID.

Garment workers in Cambodia
Garment workers in Cambodia walk to their workplace (2015).

Getty Images/Jason South/Fairfax Media

Garment workers have endured a rough year and it's not getting easier anytime soon. Not only did dozens of major fashion brands cancel and refuse to pay for orders made before the pandemic hit, but now with the global economy slowly shifting back into gear, many workers (most of whom are women) are being forced back to work in unsafe conditions.

Worker safety has become a new focal point for the ethical fashion advocates and organizations that launched the PayUp Fashion campaign last summer. While the #PayUp movement has been successful at getting 25 brands to pay what they owed to garment factories, new struggles are emerging as workers are now expected to return to factories amid surging COVID rates in Asia. 

The PayUp Fashion campaign outlines seven actions for brands to take to ensure the wellbeing of garment workers. All are important, but one organization, Re/make, is now focusing its efforts on Action #2—Keep Workers Safe. It's more relevant than ever right now, and it is the most important step to take before other improvements can be made. 

In order to spread the message, Re/make created two videos for public circulation. One is a powerful collection of first-person accounts from garment workers in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the United States, describing how their jobs have been affected by the pandemic. Another is a group of ethical fashion influencers and celebrities describing the plight of US-based garment workers earning poverty wages while working long hours. This is due to the piece-rate system of pay, which compensates workers per piece, rather than hours spent on the job.

Katrina Caspelich, director of marketing for Re/make, explains to Treehugger why focusing on Action 2, Keep Workers Safe, matters so much right now.

"Even as COVID rates spike in places like Bangladesh and there is a lack of transportation, factories are operating full-swing and expecting workers to come into work," says Caspelich. "In places like Myanmar, where a coup has taken over many of the factories, garment makers have shared with us that the Chinese-run factories expect them to come into work, despite the dangers. In India and Cambodia, some brands are expecting delivery on time or refusing to take goods, despite COVID rates spiking and lockdowns across Asia making it difficult to meet production deadlines. 

"Finally, many brands are demanding discounts and putting these into their contracts, which means that workers are being put on short-term contracts and contending with wage and severance theft," she adds. "In short, while we have won with many brands on paying Up, we are now gearing for wins on our Action 2, Keep Workers Safe."

The latest waves of COVID in Asia have hit garment workers hard. In many parts of India, factories have been shuttered, leaving "furloughed workers with limited money in hand as they walk hundreds of miles back to their villages," Caspelich says. There is no safety net for these workers, should they fall ill, which is why Re/make has been pressuring brands for months to create a severance guarantee fund—"so workers don't fall through the cracks as they have with COVID outbreaks in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka."

The video of foreign garment workers describing the challenges they face is moving and heart-wrenching. It does a good job at conveying the profound challenges that all of these women—and their dependent families—face.

The situation in the United States is dire in a different way, with workers being paid next to nothing in a country with a much higher cost of living. It's assumed that labor standards are more tightly regulated here than in developing countries, but as the video reveals, it remains a struggle.

Hearing the stories directly from the women, rather than an organization representing them, is effective. COVID is arguably the greatest crisis they've faced. As Caspelich says:

"Seventy-seven percent of garment workers report that they or a member of their household have gone hungry during the pandemic, and that 75% have had to borrow money or go into debt in order to buy food. If fashion is to build back better, we must first do right by fashion’s most essential workers. We must #PayHer."

And "Keep Her Safe." Take a moment to watch the videos—both are short, one is below—and then add your name to the PayUp Fashion petition. Every time a signature is added, an email is sent to the inboxes of over 200 fashion executives, telling them that somebody wants to see real change. 

You can donate to the Emergency Garment Worker Relief Fund, as well. One hundred percent of donations go to garment workers, providing emergency food and medical relief. Last year $150,000 was raised, but that's a fraction of what's needed. It is unfortunate that private donations must compensate for governments' failure to protect their own citizens, but there is no other choice.

As Caspelich tells Treehugger: "The International Labour Organization, the United Nations, and fashion brands have all fallen short of delivering direct relief to workers; so along with the PayUp fashion coalition, Re/make has been focusing on getting money to workers, making sure human rights are protected in Myanmar and Uyghur region, and advocating for a severance fund for workers."

When shopping, be curious and don't be afraid to speak up. Caspelich urges shoppers to challenge their favorite brands and ask what the lowest-paid workers in the supply chain make. Ask, "What are factory conditions like? How much do you pay factories for this article of clothing?"

Last but not least, opt for sustainable brands. Re/make has a company directory here that rates various brands on a scale of 1 to 100 and says whether it's Re/make-approved or not. This way you can "discover new brands and see how some of your own favorite brands are tackling environmental waste and treating the people who make your clothes."

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