Talk of sustainability is hollow until fashion brands pay their workers

Sustainability is the fashion buzzword brands love to promote, yet many knowingly overlook a key element: there is nothing sustainable about wage injustice that forces garment workers to live in abject poverty.

There has been a significant consumer shift towards ethical products and fashion brands attempt to cater to this without addressing core issues such as workers’ rights abuses and overproduction. They try to control the narrative by publicly labelling themselves ‘ethical’, ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’, yet big name brands have wilfully failed when it comes to taking responsibility for their supply chains.

Garment workers, already living on poverty wages, have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic and the inaction of fashion brands has made the effects of Covid-19 all the more brutal. Millions of garment workers worldwide have not been paid their full wages since March or have lost their jobs without legally-owed compensation, equating to between $3.2 – 5.8 billion in unpaid wages, bonuses and compensation in the first three months of the pandemic alone.

The Clean Clothes Campaign is calling on brands to sign up to a wage assurance, a public commitment to ensure that the workers in their supply chains are paid what they are owed and to enter into negotiations to establish a fund so that, if retrenched, workers will receive legally-owed severance pay. Although numerous small-scale brands have committed, at the time of writing not a single major brand has agreed, bringing their purported commitment to ethical business into question.

While the pandemic may not have been avoidable, the situation now facing many garment workers was. The fashion industry is run in the shadows, characterised by a lack of transparency. The business model is built on exploitation: brands seek the fastest turnaround and the cheapest production locations, which go hand-in-hand with the laxest labour laws.

Multi-billion dollar brands, such as H&M, Primark, and Nike, have the money to pay workers what they are owed, but yet they haven’t. Brands know they can get away with it because they have been getting away with poverty wages for so long. Human rights are treated like an inconvenience that can simply be by-passed on the road to greater profits.

H&M, for example, is one of the biggest fast fashion brands in the world, yet tens of thousands of garment workers in their supply chain, the majority of whom are women, have not been paid their full wages during the pandemic. One of multiple cases involving H&M is the Golkadas Exports factory in India. All 1,200 workers lost their jobs in June when the factory closed without notice or legally-required government approval. The factory only supplied H&M, had a union, and was the main employer in the rural area.

The union had been fighting the underpayment of workers during the pandemic, and the closure is a clear case of union busting. Pre-Covid poverty pay, less than $4.50 per day, barely covered their essentials, and now the workers are not even receiving that. They have no savings to fall back on, no safety net and, with little chance of finding new work, they are surviving on borrowed money in order to pay their rent and buy food. This case has been ongoing for five months: where is H&M’s action, how long does it take to do the right thing?

Brands have a responsibility to systematically monitor where cases of non and underpayment are happening within their supply chains and to ensure that workers receive the money they are owed. If brands had the will, they could change the industry overnight. These are not insurmountable issues without possibility of resolution, they are made by brands and they serve brands. The recent successful resolution of wage withholding at the Tanex factory in Romania highlights this. Workers were receiving only a fraction of their wage, already well beneath that of a living wage. Of the brands sourcing from the factory, Inditex and a luxury UK brand took action and the workers received the full amount they were owed. It really can be that straightforward.

What’s happening to garment workers stands as a cautionary tale to us all. Hyper-capitalism has left the vast majority of us vulnerable, neo-liberalism doesn’t care about us, it has told the world that we are worth only what someone will pay. In the case of garment workers, if a brand chooses not to pay, there is little recourse to remedy, often no justice, even though these brands profits are made off the backs of garment workers.

Corporate accountability should not be optional. Without binding legislation this supreme power imbalance will continue. A fundamental restructuring of the industry, and the wider world, is vital. Brands can start with the simple act of committing to the wage assurance and paying garment workers what they are legally owed. 


Authored by Ilana Winterstein, Clean Clothes Campaign for Thomson Reuters Foundation

October 16th, 2020