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Is the Fashion Industry Ignoring Garment Workers’ ‘Deepening Crisis’?

Garment workers worldwide, who were already living from hand to mouth, are still losing out on billions of dollars in legally owed wages, and labor groups and industry stakeholders alike are growing increasingly frustrated over a lack of progress that is becoming more pronounced the longer the pandemic wears on.

On Sunday, the British Retail Consortium and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fashion and Textiles appealed to Home Secretary Priti Patel to take urgent action over labor exploitation in the United Kingdom, where they claim workers are being “robbed” of more than 2.1 million pounds ($2.7 million) every week, or the equivalent of 27 million pounds ($35.3 million) since a previous letter was dispatched in July.

That letter—signed by more than 90 retailers, investors, non-government organizations, Ministers of Parliament and peers at the height of ultra-fast-fashion retailer Boohoo’s “sweatshop” scandal—enumerated the necessity of a “fit to trade” licensing scheme for garment factories that would protect Britain’s workers from “forced labor, debt bondage and mistreatment, ensuring payment of National Minimum Wage, VAT, PAYE, National Insurance, holiday pay and health and safety.” It would also encourage retailers to source more of their clothing in the United Kingdom while supporting the development of an “ethical, world-leading garment manufacturing industry,” its signatories said.

But the British government has yet to deliver any “significant action” to “bring this injustice to an end, all the while garment workers are robbed of tens of millions of pounds in wages,” Helen Dickinson, chief executive officer of the British Retail Consortium, said in a statement.

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The letter declared it “vital” that the Home Secretary not delay the institution of a licensing scheme, which Boohoo has also come out to support, stressing in a letter of its own to Patel in July that a “joint effort between industry and government” was necessary to reset the U.K. garment industry and “provide an incentive for retailers and brands to invest.”

“Right now, we have an opportunity to create a more ethical and sustainable fashion manufacturing industry in the U.K., providing better jobs and boosting the economy at a time when it is needed most,” said Lisa Cameron, Minister of Parliament and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles & Fashion. “It is vital the Home Secretary takes action to introduce a licensing scheme for U.K. garment manufacturers and puts the rights of workers at the heart of the industry. Without urgent action thousands more people face exploitation.”

Dickinson and Cameron’s pleas came hours ahead of the start of Global Fashion Agenda’s online Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which labor advocates are criticizing for pointedly ignoring the “deepening crisis” of the garment workers whose efforts underpin the entire supply chain.

The two-day event, dubbed CFS+, they say, highlights “redesigning value” and the creation of a “more resilient” post-Covid-19 business model by bringing “industry leaders and “diverse voices” together, yet it ignores the “people who need to be heard the most” and who have suffered the economic brunt of the pandemic.

Instead, the CFS+ program is steeped with “empty, self-serving rigmarole on growth, prosperity and radical change for the future of fashion,” noted the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest alliance of labor unions and non-governmental organization, in a press release Monday. Garment workers, it added, lost between $3.2 billion and $5.8 billion in the first three months of the pandemic alone.

“If CFS+ truly aims to be about sustainability as a business imperative, as the website claims, the focus of the discussion should not be just about how to create a more resilient business model, but about how to make workers more resilient during crises like the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Kalpona Akter, founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity. “The global fashion industry has profited long enough from paying near-poverty wages to garment workers around the world. It is 2020 and past time for them to take responsibility for their workers, who have not only had to survive this crisis without any form of social protection, but also had their wages stopped.”

In response, Malou Wedel Bruun, communications director of Global Fashion Agenda, said she believed criticism of the CFS+ program was “premature.”

“We appreciate the importance of this topic, especially as the world continues to face the Covid-19 pandemic,” Bruun told Sourcing Journal. “However, we also believe that this criticism of the CFS+ program was premature. Similar to previous Summits, this year we include speakers from across the fashion industry, including garment workers, factory owners in Southeast Asia, academics and activist voices. And in fact, the opening interview for Day 1 of CFS+ focused on the conditions of women working in the garment industry in Bangladesh.”

“We hope and believe that the Clean Clothes Campaign will have another perspective on CFS+ after watching the two days of content,” she added.

H&M CEO Helena Helmersson
H&M CEO Helena Helmersson Stefan Söderström

Advocates say brands and retailers need to do more beyond honoring prior garment orders placed before the Covid-19 crisis. Bestseller, H&M, Nike and “all the other participants and associates” of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and Global Fashion Agenda must also agree to a plan for assuring wages and severance for the workers who make their clothes.

The Clean Clothes Campaign wants to rally consumers and “others who care about the workers who make our clothes” to remind CEOs like H&M’s Helena Helmersson, who will be hosting an “impact conversation” at CFS+ Tuesday, that committing to a wage assurance—which guarantees that all workers making and handling clothes in their supply chains receive the full wages they are owed in accordance with labor laws and international standards—is the “most impactful” point they can make.

“We were shocked to find out how brands behaved at the beginning of the pandemic: cancelling orders, of which some had already been finished, and refusing to pay for them,” said Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign. “H&M has committed to pay for all orders. However, paying for those orders is far from enough. We’re still receiving reports from unions around the world of rights violations.” Factory owners, employees have complained, have been using the pandemic as an excuse to break up union activity, lay off workers unfairly or avoid paying maternity benefits.

David Sävman, head of production at H&M Group, told Sourcing Journal that while the company is “well aware of the shared challenges the fashion industry faces,” particularly during the pandemic, it has a responsibility to “take actions that contribute to systemic change that will stand the test of time.”

“There is an evident need for structural change in some textile-producing countries, in particular those with weak social protection systems,” Sävman said. “Therefore, advised by the International Labour Organization and global trade unions, we will continue our work to support social protection, freedom of association and stable processes where wage negotiations between the parties on the labor market can take place.”

H&M, he noted, will continue to be a “fair and responsible buyer—including committing to contractual agreements—as well as collaborate with trade unions and other industry actors to create change, for example within the ILO Call to Action.”

“And regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not, we always require and follow up that all of our suppliers pay their employees at least legally mandated minimum wages,” Sävman added.

But Zeldenrust says that brands, including H&M, “show absolutely no sign of solidarity with the workers who have provided them with profits through the years.” Before the pandemic, activists accused the retailer of failing to deliver on its 2013 commitment to ensure a fair living wage for 850,000 garment workers by 2018. They further claim that H&M is involved in several wage theft cases that the company has blamed on Covid-19.

“In fact, the opposite is true,” she said. “There is no hesitation to push the severest effects of the crisis to the workers at the bottom of the supply chain while people like Helena Helmersson hobnob at fashion summits.”