By guest author and Editorial Associate Bella Webb from Vogue Business
Covid-19 left thousands of garment workers without wages as brands and retailers refused to pay their suppliers. Nonprofit Remake says it is time for fashion to put workers first.
As Covid-19 lockdowns took hold in March, many retailers cancelled orders, refusing payment and leaving global suppliers burdened with finished stock, an estimated USD 40 billion in unpaid contracts and no means to pay garment workers’ wages. After Remake’s #PayUp social media campaign recouped USD 22 billion of these unpaid contracts, the fashion advocacy nonprofit is launching PayUp Fashion, an actionable manifesto for the fashion industry, with garment workers taking centre stage.
A report based on a survey of 316 Bangladesh suppliers issued by Pennsylvania State University academic Mark Anner at the end of March found that half of Bangladesh suppliers had the bulk of their in-process or completed orders cancelled. Many buyers cited force majeure clauses to justify their withdrawal, despite contractual obligations to pay. Where orders were cancelled and buyers refused to cover material and production costs, 58 % of factories had to shut down most or all of their operations, and one million workers were furloughed or fired. Seventy-two % of furloughed workers were sent home without pay, while 80 % of dismissed workers were denied the severance pay they are legally entitled to.
PayUp Fashion was created to avoid situations like this unfolding in future. Its website details seven actions for brands and consumers, which Remake founder Ayesha Barenblat says will make the industry more sustainable for the 70 million garment workers who prop it up. Co-authored by two former garment workers, Ashila Niroshi, founder of Stand Up Lanka, and Nazma Akter, founder of the Awaj Foundation, PayUp Fashion plans to be a call to action for brands and retailers with considerable influence over the supply chain. In doing so, the initiative puts the onus on brands, not customers or garment workers, to conduct better business practices and build a more humane supply chain. But without financial incentives or benefits for taking part, PayUp Fashion hinges on the hopes that applying vocal pressure to brands, boosted by its corresponding hashtag and petition, will suffice.
“Going back to business as usual is not an option,” Barenblat says. “So how do we build back in a different way?”
The demands are organised by urgency, prioritising the payment of unpaid contracts and securing protection for workers protesting the lack of wages or facing lay-offs. Barenblat says this is essential, after brands including Michael Kors, Zara and Levi’s were linked to factories allegedly using Covid-19 as an excuse to dismiss union-affiliated workers.
As well as to “pay up” and “keep workers safe”, brands are invited to “go transparent”, something Fashion Revolution has advocated for since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013. PayUp Fashion builds on this work, asking brands to commit to The Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge formed by nine labour and human rights organisations in 2016, and Fashion Checker, a living wage campaign addressing the garment industry’s gender pay gap. The fourth action, “give workers centre stage”, calls for at least 50 % worker representation at industry events shaping the future of fashion, while “sign enforceable contracts” puts legally binding, worker-centric codes of conduct in play. “Help pass laws” acknowledges the need for legislative reform to make widespread change possible, and “end starvation wages” reinforces the consequence of brands not adopting these measures.
The campaign is targeting 40 brands at launch, chosen for their market share across fast fashion and luxury. Collectively, just 20 of these brands and groups — including PVH, Walmart, Kering and LVMH — account for 97 % of the industry’s profits. “These brands have an opportunity to rewrite what fashion stands for,” says Barenblat. “They cannot forget the workers who have kept their businesses profitable for so long.”
Over the coming months, PayUp Fashion will target brands that have yet to pay their suppliers through social media activations, petitions and demonstrations where it is safe. The initial #PayUp petition, which has been live since March, already has over 270,000 signatures. Remake hopes to reach one million soon.
Grassroots social media campaigns like PayUp Fashion have become even more powerful during Covid-19, says Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group. Even without a direct monetary incentive, she says, “there’s an incentive for brands to do the right thing and avoid negative backlash. Brands who don’t make moves toward sustainable and ethical practices now will be at a long-term cost disadvantage, either through negative press or a less productive workforce.”
Citing BCG’s annual consumer insights study with Altagamma, which surveyed 12,000 consumers across 10 countries, Willersdorf notes that 37 % said fair labour practices are the reason they would choose one brand over another.
As well as signing and sharing the petition, consumers can contribute via PayUp Fashion’s dedicated GoFundMe pages, buying emergency groceries and medical supplies for affected garment workers.
“Brands and retailers have controlled the conversation for 25 years,” says Barenblat. “Enough with the incrementalism, moving furniture on the Titanic. Garment workers — predominantly women of colour — are the backbone of the industry and it’s time for them to take centre stage.”