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Protecting Workers' Rights Is Harder Than Ever in a Pandemic

Covid-19 has spotlighted inequalities that labour rights advocates have been campaigning to fix for years. But while the crisis could push forward systemic change, many fear it could also make things worse.
A Bangladeshi garment worker during a demonstration in Dhaka on January 9, 2019 | Source: Getty
  • Sarah Kent

LONDON, United Kingdom — An international labour movement that entered 2020 intent on building upon fragile gains in tackling abuses within fashion's supply chain has run into the buzzsaw of the coronavirus pandemic.

In manufacturing hubs from Tamil Nadu to Los Angeles, activists have had to shift their immediate focus from advocacy to assisting millions of garment workers who were suddenly thrown out of work due to a combination of cancelled orders and government-mandated lockdowns.

“We’ve never seen ourselves as a service organisation or charity, but this is really a time for mutual aid,” said Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Centre, which campaigns for labour rights in Los Angeles apparel factories. In the last month, the organisation has pivoted to distributing food and raising money for an emergency relief fund.

Around the world, hundreds of thousands of store employees are out of a job, while warehouse workers have staged protests to push Amazon and other e-commerce companies to ensure their safety as the virus spreads.

Labels that weave ethics into their branding have struggled to factor the pandemic into their plans.

Everlane, for one, has seen a series of environmental initiatives overshadowed by allegations it retaliated against customer service workers who were attempting to unionise. The company says those employees were let go as part of wider layoffs meant to shore up the business in the face of an unprecedented crisis.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on longstanding tensions between fashion brands and the vast populations of low-wage workers who make and sell their clothes. But it’s also made the prospect of change much more fraught.

This is a real test.

The mounting death toll and economic disruption caused by Covid-19 has built public interest and sympathy in fashion’s often invisible workforce, some of whom are now seen as key workers. Equally, governments have stepped in with unprecedented aid packages, creating a tantalising opening to secure more protective policies in some countries.

On the other hand, many countries cannot afford to be so generous for long. Meanwhile, apparel companies are scrambling to survive. Historically, economic downturns have often been detrimental to labour movements.

“The great recession really set labour back,” said Jake Rosenfeld, associate professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. “This is a real test.”

Progress Interrupted

The pandemic ended a global economic boom that, though criticised for funnelling a disproportionate share of the gains to the ultra-wealthy, had begun to lift the prospects of ordinary workers as well.

In the US, the unemployment rate was at its lowest level in decades. Employers were raising wages and offering new benefits to workers, many of whom could easily find a job with a rival brand if they weren't kept happy.

Meanwhile, unions were making slow inroads within pockets of the fashion industry where there had previously been little discussion of organised labour. Conversations were growing within e-commerce, modelling, fashion media and among freelance creatives, as “woke” Millenials and Gen Z gained traction within the workforce and consumer markets.

And further down the supply chain, labour rights activists were looking to capitalise on mounting consumer pressure for brands to address the poor conditions and low wages faced by many garment workers in developing countries.

The great recession really set labour back.

To be sure, progress has been messy and slow. Most garment workers still don't earn a living wage, and fashion leans heavily on migrants whose uncertain status opens them to abuse. In the West, retail and warehouse workers are often employed part-time with limited job security or benefits. Labour issues have at times struggled to hold consumers' attention, particularly as climate issues rose to the top of the agenda.

“Things are generally better than they were 20 years ago,” said Tim Ryan, Asia region director at nonprofit labour organisation the Solidarity Centre. “But they’re far from what they could be if the brands and big international companies were willing to be more proactive and engage with suppliers in a serious way.”

The global pandemic has changed the paradigm with shocking speed. Warehouse workers who fulfil e-commerce orders have been redefined as key workers, with their fight to gain better protections making national headlines. As Everlane’s experience has shown, brands are under intense scrutiny for how they treat their employees in the crisis. Several major western retailers have come out with commitments to pay in full for orders placed in countries like Bangladesh after facing criticism for the impact cancellations would have on garment workers.

The question now is whether this attention can be used to press for lasting change.

“People are waking up to the value of work and workers,” said Marsha Dickson, a professor in the department of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware and president of Better Buying, which rates the industry’s purchasing practises. “Things are going to be different. Businesses are going to be different.”

The Price of Panic

Companies are already retreating from commitments to workers as they struggle for survival.

Early efforts by many brands to keep paying store employees have wavered as it became clear that shops would remain shut across much of Europe and North America at least through the spring. According to McKinsey and BoF's State of Fashion update, revenues for the global fashion industry will contract by 27 to 30 percent this year.

“There’s panic,” said Christina Hajagos-Clausen, director for the textile and garment industry at the IndustriALL Global Union. “It is an industry driven by consumerism ... if people don’t buy there’s no industry.”

Things are going to be different. Businesses are going to be different.

Fashion companies have laid off or furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers in a desperate effort to cut costs. At the same time, they face criticism for risking employees’ safety by keeping e-commerce warehouses open (some, including Net-a-Porter, have closed distribution centres).

Brands have also cancelled billions of dollars worth of orders. In some cases, suppliers have refused to pay for products that have already been completed. Across many of fashion's manufacturing hubs, industry watchers are bracing for a humanitarian crisis as lockdowns and fears over the spread of the virus compound the already severe economic hardship many garment workers now face.

With the economy in free-fall, workers who attempt to organise are at an even greater risk of retaliation than usual. Labour organisers say union leaders are being targeted in mass layoffs. In addition to Everlane, Amazon has come under fire for dismissing a number of workers who spoke up over warehouse conditions during the pandemic. The e-commerce company said it has introduced new benefits and safeguards for its employees and that the individuals in question were let go for violating their terms of employment or internal policies.

Right now, it can be hard to pick out retaliatory firings when layoffs are so widespread.

In Everlane’s case, the company laid off dozens of employees, including a large number of the customer experience team that had recently filed to form a union. That prompted allegations of union-busting that were amplified on Twitter by Sen. Bernie Sanders. The former employees have filed a complaint with the National Labour Relations Board, a regulator.

The unfolding PR crisis threatens the company's carefully-crafted image: consumers have increasingly come to associate its promise of radical price transparency with socially and environmentally ethical business practices.

“Firing as a form of union-busting is unethical and illegal,” Everlane said in a statement published on its website. “This has been an incredibly challenging time, and this decision was not in any way related to unionization efforts.”

Ethics and Existential Questions

Amid the chaos and confusion, some still see an opportunity to press for long-term gains that will protect workers from a repeat of the current situation.

Previous crises have shown that significant shifts are possible when disasters bring pressure to bear on the global industry. The Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 — a fatal disaster that killed more than 1,000 people in Bangladesh — resulted in some of the industry's most comprehensive and successful multi-stakeholder initiatives.

In the wake of the disaster, more than 200 brands joined with trade unions to form two organisations that created legally-binding commitments to ensure worker safety. The result was substantial and made material gains in factory safety standards, despite more recent concerns about the country's commitment to maintaining the programme.

“This is not the time to ask the question of what is the minimum brands can get away with and not lose public face,” said Jennifer Rosenbaum, US director at Global Labour Justice. “This is the time to ask the question of how can we reorganise supply chains in a way that is promoting equity.”

To be sure, brands themselves are under much greater financial pressure than they were at the time of Rana Plaza, leaving them with less leeway for ambitious projects. The situation is also more complex and the extent to which struggling brands can be held accountable is more nuanced. On the other hand, consumers are also more attuned to brands' business practices than ever before.

This is the time to ask the question of how can we reorganise supply chains in a way that is promoting equity.

Calls on brands to take more responsibility come at a difficult time, but may prove vital to the industry’s long-term survival. Short-term knee jerk reactions that destroy supply chains will not easily be reversed and may result in long-term reputational damage for companies associated with them.

International labour organisations are working with brands, governments and international finance organisations to try and establish industry-wide principles that could provide a framework for longer-standing social safety nets within the sector.

It’s an opportunity to build on years of slow and challenging work, but many also see the situation as fraught. The very real economic crisis facing many brands is already a consistent justification for behaviour that penalises workers and increases the risks in speaking up. While organisers hope for progress, they also fear a reversion to business as usual, or even regression.

“The real question is, how are people when they come out of this?” said Solidarity Centre’s Ryan. “Are they going to be more shell shocked and grateful just to have a job, or more outraged by what they’ve gone through and more willing to organise.”

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

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