For decades, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and NGOs have been the watchdogs of how the fashion supply chain conducts its business to ensure that workers are given their due. How many times have we heard of strong protests in both the manufacturing and retail markets against companies that deviate, even a little, from what the CSOs define as Ethical Practises? There have been times when factories have been closed down in the larger interest of the ethical movement, rendering workers jobless and retail stores forced to withdraw products claimed to be made in sweatshops around the world. Today when millions of workers in manufacturing destinations are facing the consequences of order cancellations and payment delays, what are the CSOs and NGOs doing to support these poor workers, who have been left in the lurch?
The implications of the pandemic for the fashion supply chain are huge, as it is among the most labour-oriented industries in the world and the reaction of any default is felt along the chain in increasing magnitude. There is no doubt that every party in the fashion chain is extremely under pressure, yet it is also true that not all parties are equally placed to find the liquidity needed to cover their expenses.
As markets around the world close down with no real clue as to when they will open up, retailers and brands are taking an enormous hit to their bottom line and cash reserves. However, the impact on supplier factories, which generally operate on thin margins and have far less access to capital than their customers, is that much more extreme. Moving further down, the burden of non-payment on workers, who just earn enough to sustain life and forget about accumulating any savings, is a threat to his very existence.
No one can deny that one of the biggest fallouts of the current crisis has been the social implication of the pandemic. It is obvious that the brands, retailers and e-tailers have no strategy in place for the human right impact of crises like the current one. Sadly, even the organisations which monitor human rights of workers have been found unprepared and lacking in handling a crisis of this magnitude.
As the situation worsened, after the supply chain came to a complete halt, the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), considered a leader in motivating brands and retailers to ensure ethical practises along the supply chain, published guidance to brands on how to treat existing orders and future commitments with suppliers during the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes avoiding force majeure terms.
Appealing to the brands, Peter McAllister, ETI’s Executive Director, said “ETI understands that many brands are facing huge challenges throughout their supply chains and within their own business during this period. Equally, we know that many suppliers and manufacturers are feeling the impact and will also be concerned with business continuity; however, in the long run, we all depend on each other and ultimately, workers.
International development and campaigning charity Traidcraft Exchange, strongly condemned the action of the brands in cancelling orders, claiming that the Coronavirus pandemic is exposing the bullying practices with which fashion retailers and brands treat their suppliers, with knock-on consequences for workers. In an official statement, Fiona Gooch, Senior Private Sector Policy Advisor at Traidcraft Exchange, said “British Brands need to come clean and publish a commitment to honour all contracts made before 23 March when the UK went into lockdown. They need to tell us what they are going to do to make sure workers are paid.”
The above are just two examples of strong statements issued in the interest of workers, but the fact is that today most of the worker associations and labour bodies working with the industry in various countries are issuing statements and preparing white papers demanding that brands should take a more equitable approach to sharing the financial burden of the crisis, rather than sloughing all costs onto suppliers and, in turn, workers.
Policies and guidelines for long-term action and protection in case of other similar crises are needed, and it is good that the CSOs are taking a stand and even coming up with charter proposals on how the supply chain needs to take responsibility and contribute along with Governments to create social security nets to support the workers. These proposed charters and action plans are all over the internet.
But is that enough? Where is the ground level work that is the need of the hour today in manufacturing destinations, as workers struggle to survive? Why are the associates of big international organisations like Clean Clothes Campaign, Asia Floor Wages, and FLO who are usually so vocal in their protests and uncompromising when something goes wrong in a factory, only giving sermons? How are they supporting and funding livelihood for the workers who have been displaced…surprisingly, no one seems to know!