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10 Cents Per T-Shirt: Cost of Lifting Garment Workers From Starvation to Survival?

Labor-rights groups want brands like Amazon, Next and Nike to “fix their broken industry” and provide immediate cash relief to ensure that the workers who make their clothes survive the Covid-19 crisis.

The 200 endorsing organizations, which include Anti-Slavery International, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Fashion Revolution, Remake and the Worker Rights Consortium, established on Monday a new campaign website, called PayYourWorkers.org, that will kick off a “global week of action” involving digital, social-media and socially distanced in-person protests in front of stores and factories in countries around the world.

“Workers in Cambodia lost millions of dollars in wages during the pandemic because of brands’ actions,” Sophorn Yang, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said in a statement. “It’s time for brands to recognize the crucial position they hold in garment and footwear supply chains and take responsibility for the wages of workers who make them billions of dollars in profits year after year.”

Amazon, Next and Nike belong to an elite group of coronavirus survivors, referred to by McKinsey & Company as “super winners,” that have not only bounced back from the pandemic’s initial sales plunge but have become profitable again. Amazon doubled its profits from a year ago to rake in $7.2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone. Nike reported second-quarter revenues of $11.2 billion, up 9 percent from the previous year, in December. And Next made 342 million pounds ($475 million) in pre-tax profits in the 53 weeks leading up to January.

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Meanwhile, the organizations said, their upstream workers struggle with job losses, wage theft and pay cuts, leaving them in a state of extreme economic precarity, hunger and destitution.

“We have calculated that it would take just 10 cents per T-shirt for fashion brands to make sure garment workers can at least survive the pandemic, and to strengthen unemployment protections for the future,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign. “This is the minimum brands should do on the way to the living wages which must become the standard of a post-pandemic recovery. This proposal is achievable, and brands and retailers who say it is not are putting profits before the well-being of their workers.”

Next did not respond to a request for comment.

Amazon told Sourcing Journal in an emailed statement that it is committed to supporting its suppliers, their workers and their communities as they continue to weather the pandemic. In 2020, it said, the Everything Store created a $1.3 million fund to invest in organizations—such as the International Organization for Migration, Swasti, Nest’s PPE Purchasing Initiative and the Amader Kotha Helpline—that provide frontline support to workers impacted by the pandemic. Since the Covid-19 outbreak began, Amazon has honored all orders for both its U.S. and European Union private-label apparel businesses, it added.

A Nike spokesperson said that the sportswear Goliath is “deeply committed” to ethical and responsible manufacturing and ensuring that “all people who make our products are valued and treated fairly and with respect.”

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Nike has been working with our suppliers to support their efforts in response to the dynamic and unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 situation,” the spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “As they continue to navigate these circumstances, we expect our suppliers to consider their employees’ health and livelihoods and continue to comply with local legal requirements and the Nike code of conduct on the provision of wages, benefits and severance.”

Nike, the spokesperson said, has continued to place orders, pay its suppliers in full for finished items and honor previously agreed-upon payment terms for garments in production.

“We engaged with a number of institutions to offer financing opportunities to suppliers as they have been navigating challenging market dynamics. We’ve also been continuing to explore [the] development of other solutions to support workers in the supply chain,” the spokesperson added.

But labor advocates say brands must do more and “pay back the apparel sector employees what they are owed.“

Sri Lankan apparel sector employers haven’t paid their employees’ full wages and bonuses and have withdrawn transport and food support during the first wave in March to May 2020,” said Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union in Sri Lanka. “According to our calculation, garment employees are owed at least $24 million only for that period. About 200,000 employees lost their jobs without receiving the compensation they are entitled to. In the meantime, apparel export numbers have hardly gone down.“