Fashion has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Retailers like Neiman Marcus and J.Crew have declared bankruptcy, major designers have canceled fashion shows for the foreseeable future, and fast fashion brands like Uniqlo, and H&M have halted some production of sellable products to make PPE to be donated instead. It’s a harsh reality that is impacting every layer of the industry – but it’s the most vulnerable employees who are bearing the brunt of both the health and safety crisis, and the economic fallout.
In factories from Bangladesh to Los Angeles, garment workers are facing unprecedented difficulties. Some factories and mills have closed completely, leaving many of the workers – a majority of whom are women – without pay. Moreover, in the open factories, workers are reporting that they have been creating PPE (like masks and gowns) in places still operating under sweatshop conditions, i.e. not cleaned, or regulated for safety in any meaningful way.
According to a recent story by Buzzfeed News, some workers at Myanmar factories that are reportedly part of the supply chain for Inditex, the company that owns Zara, were let go. They're reporting claimed that “more than 500 workers at the two factories were laid off when they asked to be supplied with durable masks and for social distancing to be introduced to protect them from the coronavirus.”
Inditex has said that Zara did not cancel any orders, has paid bills for placed orders and that the layoffs in those factories had nothing to do with their brand. A spokesperson told the outlet that, “Inditex has worked tirelessly over many years to ensure the standards set out in its supplier code of conduct are followed, including through its global partnership with the IndustriALL Global Union – the first agreement of its kind in the industry – and its membership of the ACT platform on living wages."
There’s a problem with fashion’s shift to PPE production.
On top of retaliatory issues, the pay-per-piece model where a workers' wages are based on the number of garments they make ensures that many are paid far below the minimum wage. Marissa Nuncio, the director of the Garment Worker Center, an activist organization in Los Angeles representing many seamstresses, explains, “The fact that garment workers are earning as little as $.05 per mask, which leads to wages as low as $190 per week, is unacceptable. This is life-saving equipment in these times, and the workers making them are risking infection themselves in cramped, dirty factories.”
She continues, “One would think the fact that garment workers are now essential workers would lead to positive changes in their wages and working conditions.” But no, she says. “This reality is also, unfortunately, ‘business as usual’ in the garment industry.” Annie Shaw, the outreach coordinator at GWC, adds, “This industry didn’t change overnight. There is such a long history of sweatshop labor, and the pandemic only perpetuates it. There is no access to protective items like hand sanitizer or gloves. In normal times, garment workers have to bring their own supplies like toilet paper, even though you would think that would be provided. It’s not as though this is changing now.”
Maribelia Quiroz, an LA-based garment worker and organizer for GWC told us about her first-hand experience. "Since COVID-19, I have been stuck at home, feeling desperate with anxiety. There has been work in my factory, but I'm afraid to go because it’s all [paid] under the table, and people are working in close proximity without six-foot distancing. The pay is the same as before the pandemic: 12-hour days, $280 a week,” she explained. She also said that she had not received a stimulus check and has been relying on an emergency relief fund set up by the organization. The problem is that many workers are already being paid under minimum wage, so these unexpected changes can be catastrophic.
In other major fashion production hubs like Bangladesh, where a garment factory collapsed killing more than 1,000 people in 2014, workers have reportedly been sent home without pay for work that has been completed. According to Ayesha Barenblat, the founder of Remake, an activist organization that investigates sweatshop labor, some companies like Gap Inc. have canceled orders from factories but are not paying for the production that's been done prior to the cancelation.
“As the pandemic spread globally, retail stores closed across the US and Europe, and online sales plummeted,” she explains. “Subsequently, brands and retailers pushed the risk down to suppliers, en masse invoking force majeure clauses in their contract to cancel orders already produced, where suppliers had fronted the materials and labor cost.” The clause Barenblat refers to is common in many contracts and essentially frees both parties of liability if something catastrophic happens like, say, a pandemic. So while this convenient legalese certainly helped some major brands when sales plummeted on seasonal items, it does not protect the workers who have no severance protection, or healthcare provided by their employers, the third-party production sites the brands do business with.
Activists are stepping in to make changes now.
To address the issues, Remake started a Change.org petition in March which asks brands to support the garment workers down their supply chain. “Brands must pay for in-production and canceled orders, rather than abandon their supply chain partners and the women who have kept their businesses profitable for decades,” the petition demands. While some, like H&M, Zara, Target, and most recently Under Armour, have signed on to pay for their canceled orders despite not needing them, others like Gap, are still listed as having not agreed to make these payments. A spokesperson for Gap told InStyle that the brand made the “very difficult decision to furlough the majority of our store employees and continue to monitor staffing levels at each of our fulfillment centers.”
They added that they are working closely with vendors and “have shifted capacity in some factories toward making PPE and are prototyping to develop PPE supplies, including masks and gowns, using our excess materials.” While it appears that Gap Inc., which owns Old Navy, is hiring workers to make masks that will be sold online, Remake claims the back pay on other orders still leaves many without compensation.
The pandemic is a magnifying glass on already existing problems.
Amy Blyth, Director of Partnerships and Program Development for FairTradeUSA, works with suppliers to address labor issues. According to her, many fashion brands have shifted to a production model called the “just in time” supply chain. While this model seeks to hold less inventory by only making clothing based on orders already placed, it also assumes that customers are measured in their purchases and does not account for any volatility. This means that when orders stop, there is no safety net for the factories and the workers. She explains, “There are still many critical questions about who bears the majority of the risk in the supply chain; while this pandemic is hitting everyone hard, suppliers and production workers have less resilience to financial and health emergencies.”
Of course, while the weakness of the systems in place seem to be glaring at this moment, it’s certainly not new. In fact, the Global Slavery Index, which tracks the presence of modern slavery across several different industries, estimated that in 2018, $127.7 billion worth of garments could have been made via unsafe or abusive manufacturing processes. These figures are based on the amount of clothing that was estimated to come from factories where labor abuse was reported.
And that’s not limited to fast fashion as we commonly hear it. Even companies with the most ethical values in their mission statements can fall apart if you look too closely at their production practices. Ethics and sustainability can, unfortunately, be a public relations win for brands that don’t have the infrastructure to maintain it as they grow. “I have found a tension between growth and keeping up with a brand’s founding ethical ethos,” Barenblat says referring to Remake’s research.
Can COVID-19 be a catalyst for labor changes in the fashion industry?
Though it’s clear these problems are not going to be solved overnight, there are certainly signs of hope. The Garment Workers Center raised over $32,000 to give to 80-100 workers in Los Angeles displaced by the pandemic. Some designers, like Brooklyn-based Kelsey Randall, are even creating masks themselves and donating the proceeds to workers who have been laid off because of factory closures. The #PayUp petition garnered over 12,000 signatures and pushed many brands to make a difference, especially for workers who are facing major losses. And Fair Trade started a fund that will go directly to workers.
While the pandemic has caused so much destruction and uncertainty in the fashion industry, many activists see it as an opportunity to change. In Los Angeles, activists at the Garment Workers Center feel the solution is to make garment workers a part of the decision-making process, allowing them to speak up about safety without fear of retaliation. Barenblat adds that consumers and designers can play a role in this too. “My hope is that some of these smaller sustainable players build resilience by relying on US cotton and energy-efficient yarn, sourcing from co-operative worker-owned factories and distributing from unionized warehouses.” And, as consumers, we can raise awareness and simply buy less. She adds, “Our wallets and the planet cannot sustain the pace at which we have been buying. We had seen consumers already shifting toward sustainability, wanting experiences over cheap mounds of clothes. My hope is COVID-19 exacerbates this shift.”
After 30 years working as a sewer, Quiroz agrees. "Nothing will change until workers are paid at least minimum wage,” she said. “Fashionistas need to pressure brands and companies to do more so that factories will protect us and pay workers minimum wage."
This story was updated to include a statement and information about factory layoffs from Inditex, the company that owns Zara.