Years of little progress on workers’ social and economic rights and weak human rights due diligence on the companies’ side have left workers in the garment supply chain vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis. Brands, retailers and e-tailers have also proven to be unprepared for the human rights impacts of crises like the current one. This has contributed or even caused the violation of workers’ rights to social protection and to an adequate standard of living, including and crucially lacking the ability to save money. In response, brands and retailers should step in and provide mitigating measures to the actual human rights impacts upon the workers making their clothes, and simultaneously lay the foundation for much-needed structural change which has to have comprehensive social protection for all workers as a basis.
Payment of orders, no cancellation, extend deadlines
Brands, retailers and e-tailers that operate in the global garment supply chains need to honour contracts that they have already signed. They should publicly confirm that they will pay the originally agreed amounts on the originally agreed schedule, for all orders completed or in production – i.e. those orders for which fabric has been ordered or cut.
Some brands and retailers are reportedly seeking to evade this responsibility by invoking force majeure. The legality of this approach varies depending on the specifics of the contract and jurisdiction, but is often questionable. Brands and retailers should avoid misusing force majeure contract provisions to evade their responsibilities.
They should respond positively to all demands from suppliers for extended production timelines. No delay sanctions must be applied to orders not fulfilled in time.
Payment of wages
All apparel, textile, footwear, and logistics workers, who were employed at the onset of the crisis, regardless of employment status should be paid their legally mandated wages and benefits, including severance payments and arrears.
Emergency relief funds and financial support packages specifically for the garment sector should be set up with contributions from IFIs, donor governments as well as brands and retailers for this purpose. Brands and retailers should provide a public guarantee that all workers in their supply chains employed at the onset of the crisis are paid their legally mandated or regular wages and benefits, whichever is higher.
In the short term, funds to enable payments of sufficient income should be delivered as rapidly as possible via the most efficient mechanisms available in each country, including direct financial support to employers conditioned on wage payment continuation if that proves to be fastest.
Wherever possible, this should be done by supporting the capacity of employers to maintain workers’ employment and wages (including, the rehiring of previously dismissed workers, if feasible). Direct income support for workers who cannot be paid through an employer should be made available, unless adequate support is being verifiably provided to unemployed workers, by the national government.
Funds to enable additional remedial payments should also be made available to ensure payment in the coming months to all workers that are not paid legally mandated remuneration (wages, severance, other terminal payments) owing to them as a result of the crisis. These funds should be disbursed to those with documented cases of non-payment, identified pursuant to efforts by brands, governments, unions, and civil society to track and document all such cases.
An independent and transparent mechanism will be need to swiftly identified in each country to verify that all funds are properly disbursed to workers by employers and/or governments. Emergency relief and financial support packages require detailed, specific, transparent, and time-bound commitments from recipient governments to get money quickly and securely to affected workers and their families.
Brands and retailers should commit to a price premium on future orders to be paid into an independent global guaranty fund to cover wage arrears and severance and to support stronger social protections for workers.
Worker health and safety and public health
Those firms and workers who continue to work or resume production during the pandemic must comply with World Health Organization guidance and endeavour to follow other good practices outlined in the guidance issued to businesses by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent and respond to the spread of COVID-19 at workplaces and among communities.
COVID-19 should be classified as an occupational disease, in order to ensure stronger workplace protections and access to compensation as well as to medical care. All ILO Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) protection standards need to be respected, with special attention for personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing, right of removal from danger and worker participation mechanisms, and adaptation of transport systems where needed.
Garment workers who continue to work and risk exposure to provide essential services including face masks and other essential textile products should be provided with additional labour protection including childcare facilities or allowances, medical insurance, and hazard pay.
Brands and retailers need to request that all suppliers develop a non- discrimination policy and apply that to retrenchment and re-hiring decisions. Where there is a union in the workplace this policy should be negotiated with and signed off by them. All retrenchment proposals should be monitored to ensure that they do not disproportionally affect trade union members and leaders. Women (particularly pregnant women), or workers on permanent contracts. In cases where retrenchment has had a discriminatory effect, the retrenchment process should be invalidated and redone following best practice procedures. Orders should only be re-started with factories where that policy is in place. The policy should be based on the relevant ILO conventions and take into consideration Better Work guidance.
Right to refuse work
Workers who stop working given COVID-19 risks must not be excluded from unemployment, severance, or other economic rights and benefits during the crisis or be penalized with loss of contracts or work when the crisis subsides. It should be pro-actively announced that workers with COVID-19 symptoms may stay at home without risking to lose their job or (part of) their wage.
Where governments have introduced lock-down orders, suppliers should comply with local government measures and clearly communicate to workers, and respect that dismissals for workers’ “absenteeism” during the lock-down is illegal. Financial and logistic support to travel to home towns (in cases where factories are temporarily closed) should be provided.
Specific OSH plans need to be implemented immediately upon re-opening of factories, including the right to paid sick leave if the workers or their dependents become symptomatic, and a policy by the employer to allow to close the premises if workers become infected.
Social protection floors
Governments in garment producer countries need to take action immediately to establish and maintain social protection floors and improve national social security schemes to make them consistent with ILO standards including for unemployment, employment injury, and medical insurance. Governments need to work with manufacturers to establish transparent cost-sharing to make this a reality.
Brands need to pay into these social protection systems through a premium on top of FoB or another traceable cost-sharing mechanism to be agreed.
Emergency relief and financial support packages provided in the context of COVID-19, should be connected to the establishment and implementation of social protection floors and other social security schemes by including ILO principles of decent work, social protection and tripartism in their design and criteria.
Financial support packages provided to brands and retailers in their home countries should be connected to cost-sharing and ensuring these principles throughout their supply chains.
Return and recovery post-pandemic
The industry as a whole must commit to establishing more sustainable and resilient industries and supply-chains. When rebuilding more resilient supply chains, brands and retailers should ensure that suppliers pay workers living wages and social benefits.
Brands, retailers and e-tailers will need to rethink and change the current pricing model and underlying business model. These changes include order stability that allows for proper planning, timely payments of orders, and full respect for workers’ rights. It also includes a costing model that covers all the costs of social compliance: ranging from living wages and benefits, to social protection and worker safety.
As an immediate step this requires brands, retailers, and e-tailers to end unsustainable practices in future contracts, extending contract durations and making fair payment schedules, as well as making enforceable commitments to help fund social protection systems, for unemployment and/or severance benefits, sickness, and employment injury.
Cost-sharing mechanisms for this purpose need to be developed, whether in the form of payment of social security contributions, through taxes, or through a premium on contribution on their orders.
Part of these payments should be used for setting up an independent fund as referenced above that can be used for wages, benefits, and severance payments left outstanding by national mechanisms.
Responsible exit plans of brands and retailers in response to COVID-19 should be considered temporary and include discussion of return to suppliers once the crisis subsides. Return to countries and suppliers should be linked to those countries’ and suppliers’ compliance with their responsibilities to workers during the crisis and contraction and reinstatement of workers when factories re-open in line with principles of ILO Recommendation 166 and under conditions to ensure the above OSH, social protection, and wage provisions.
Governments that house the headquarters of lead firms should implement effective regulatory reform of commercial law regulating unfair commercial and trade practices that lead to human rights abuses in their global supply chains.
Governments should also adopt human rights due diligence legislation to put in place an obligation on companies to respect human rights in their operations and supply chains. Such legislation should require companies to conduct due diligence on their human rights and environmental risks, and take appropriate steps to prevent and mitigate such risks. It should also hold companies accountable in courts if they abuse human rights or fail to mitigate human rights abuses in their supplier factories.
[This document was first published on 9 April 2020 and further adapted to the changing situation on 18 May 2020 and 6 September 2021]
1For background and more information see: https://www.ecchr.eu/fileadmin/Publikationen/ECCHR_PP_SUPPLYCHAINS_COVID_EN.pdf; https://www.workersrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Who-Will-Bail-Out-the-Workers-March-2020.pdf.
2 https://www.ecchr.eu/fileadmin/Publikationen/ECCHR_PP_SUPPLYCHAINS_COVID_EN.pdf; https://www.workersrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Abandoned-Penn-State-WRC-Report-March-27-2020.pdf.
4 For further suggestions see: https://traidcraftexchange.org/policy-resources/2020/4/6/bailing-out-the-supply-chain-covid-19-and-the-impact-for-workers-in-supply-chains; and https://www.ecchr.eu/fileadmin/Publikationen/ECCHR_PP_SUPPLYCHAINS_COVID_EN.pdf.