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Will Fashion Brands Sacrifice ‘Gigantic Profits’ to Pay Workers Living Wages?

Garment workers have long struggled with what they are paid and what they need to be paid to live. To bridge that gap, a new initiative is proposing a legally binding agreement that requires apparel brands to pay an additional “living wage contribution” on every order they place.

The brainchild of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, Clean Clothes Campaign and the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network, Wage Forward seeks to bring to fruition a “new strategy” for enforceable brand agreements that address the “crisis caused by poverty wages,” just as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Fair Food Program have markedly improved the safety and living conditions of supply-chain workers.

“It’s about time that a credible proposal is made in which brands are truly held accountable for the dreadful circumstances under which workers and their families have been living for decades while they, the brands, were making gigantic profits,” Anannya Bhattacharjee, president of the Garment and Allied Workers Union, said in a statement. “Brands’ [corporate social responsibility] reports are full of promises regarding wages. Now it’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is.”

According to living-wage benchmarks established by the Asian Floor Wage Alliance and others, salaries need to triple across the board for workers to afford a quality of life beyond mere subsistence.

Though the calculation of the living wage contribution, which will go directly to workers, is almost certain to vary by country and any individual terms of collective bargaining, the amount will largely aim to redress the disparity between the statutory minimum wage and the estimated living wage where the supplier is located, the organizations say.

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The proposed agreement will also include protections for workers’ right to organize, along with guaranteed access to a 24-hour complaint mechanism to report violations to the agreement. Mirroring the Bangladesh Accord, grassroots unions, brands and labor rights groups will be signatories to the agreement. Signatory brands will also be required to cut ties with suppliers that violate the agreement or face potential legal action.

Wage Forward, labor advocates say, launches at a time when workers have shifted their concerns from the payment of a living wage to any payment whatsoever. Since the pandemic began, millions have received only partial wages or no wages at all as they shoulder the burden of rampant order cancellations and suspensions, non-payments and pricing squeezes by some of the world’s largest—and most profitable—fashion brands.

“Brands’ behavior during the pandemic has once again shown us the complete ruthlessness of brands towards the people making the products they are selling,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign. “Workers are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Their wages are deferred or simply not paid. This happened on a massive scale since March and is unfortunately still ongoing.”

The only way forward, the organizations say, is to combine wage assurances and other forms of Covid-19 relief with longer-term measures, such as the living-wage contribution, that will help workers weather future financial shocks.

“The fact that these workers have been paid poverty wages all along means that they do not have savings to fall back on,” said Theresa Haas, director of transnational strategies at the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network. “Had they been paid a living wage over the past couple of years, it would have been a very different, less ugly picture.”