While the coronavirus outbreak has wreaked havoc in economies in the western world and lives certainly have been disrupted, few actually fear for their lives due to job losses. Undoubtedly, looking at the fashion industry, especially small- and medium-size labels, brands and retailers will have a hard time, maybe will even have to give up, but personally, even the workers at the bottom rung of the employment ladder will have a roof over their heads, food on the table and hopefully some company or welfare system to tide them over the next few months.
This is not true for those on the bottom rung of the supply chain in garment-producing countries around the world but especially in Asia like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam and others. Here, government bailout systems are patchwork solutions that would tide workers over for a month, at best. Otherwise, job loss means no income, no severance pay, no outstanding wages being paid. With practically no savings, soon there will be no money for food, let alone rent. The consequences are dire and life-threatening, not only for garment workers but their families.
That is why, after profiting through their hard work and paper-thin margins for years, international buyers can no longer shirk their responsibility by cancelling orders and turning their backs on those supplier factories who were there for them over the years. What should be one large, extended family suddenly turns out to be very dysfunctional.
Millions of garment workers’ existence at stake
As reported by FashionUnited in the last few days, 4.1 million garment workers will literally go hungry in Bangladesh alone if buyers do not honour contracts, hiding behind force majeure clauses that do not apply, and refusing to pay for raw materials, cut-trim-costs and garments that have already been produced for them.
To be fair, some big international buyers like Primark, H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, PVH, Target have since come forward, promising to keep their commitments and honour their contracts: “We will stand by our commitments to our garment manufacturing suppliers by taking delivery of the already produced garments as well as goods in production. We will of course pay for these goods and we will do it under agreed payment terms. This is in accordance with our responsible purchasing practices and not only the case in Bangladesh, but in all production countries,” said H&M in a statement a week ago.
“Primark is today announcing it will fund payment of the wages that relate to this product, taking into account adjustments for government support packages provided in each country. This action will cover orders from the following countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. In consultation with external stakeholders, the Primark Ethical Trade team will explore mechanisms to ensure that this money reaches workers,” promised Irish fast fashion giant Primark in a statement on Monday.
Unfortunately, what buyers fail to understand is the urgency of the situation for garment workers in apparel-producing countries. They need payment now, not in 30, 60 or 90 days. By then, families are already homeless, workers without funds, hope or options and children starving.
#PayUp initiative urges buyers to honour contracts now
This is why US-based NGO Remake together with Mostafiz Uddin, owner of Bangladesh-based denim manufacturer and exporter Denim Expert Ltd. and labour activist and founder of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, Kalpona Akter, has launched the #PayUp initiative, urging international brands and retailers to honour their commitments and pay for in-production orders now.
“As we learned last Friday on a call with factory owners and advocacy leaders in Bangladesh, many brands that have ‘promised’ to pay for in-production orders have placed no time commitment on their payments, meaning that even though they’re getting the good press, they’re not actually fulfilling their financial responsibilities to suppliers. This is devastating,” stated Katrina Caspelich, Remake’s director of marketing, in an email to FashionUnited.
“There is no time commitment on these payments. Garment makers are not getting paid because brands are not taking their goods yet. Factories are keeping goods in warehouses, with brands potentially holding off payments until June or July, if they ever pay us at all,” elaborates Uddin. As no brand has placed future orders as of now, this means factories will shut their doors come summer if they do not pay now and not based on prior contractual terms of shipment and 60 to 90 days of payment delay.
Emergency funds for workers are the need of the hour
“Brands need to create an emergency fund, as these are the same workers that have made them profits for years. If they don’t, the most vulnerable will not have food on the table. Brands need to step up. It’s not generosity that we’re asking for, it’s responsibility,” urges Akter.
“It’s vital that we don’t forget about the millions of garment makers right now. Brands have made their profits off these workers for decades, and they are now trying to abandon them in the most vulnerable of circumstances,” adds Caspelich.
In this time of crisis, it is certainly not about who is suffering more, east or west; this is not a competition but a question of developing compassion for each other’s unique situations and a chance to emerge from this unprecedented occurrence stronger than ever, learning from past mistakes and building on what works and what is most needed in the present moment. Only then will the future be manageable and even a bit brighter.