Garment Worker Conditions
Revelations of unjust and dangerous treatment of garments workers in the global fashion industry continue to surface in the mainstream media. When the story broke about non-paying brands leaving factories in Bangladesh at crisis point, a series of initiatives were launched including Remake’s ‘Payup’ and Red Carpet Green Dress’s ‘Global Design Contest 2020’ to raise awareness of the impact on garment workers, and provide them with aid. It is difficult, however, to determine how these initiatives will drive lasting change for garment workers, who continue to live hand to mouth despite decades of living-wage debate and aid initiatives. Is aid and ‘raising awareness’ a long term solution, or a band-aid driven in some instances by a ‘white savior’ complex? We may feel good about ‘liking’ such campaigns on Instagram and sharing popular hashtags to show solidarity or concern, but does this result in any material difference to garment workers? How does their situation change due to this raised awareness? What really needs to change so that workers receive a living wage and job security, and why hasn’t this happened already?
Evidence of just how tragic the situation has become for garment workers in Bangladesh was revealed recently in a shocking article in the Dhaka Tribune. The article revealed that newly married garment workers, Keya Akter (18) and Sharif Hosain (19), were forced by a private hospital to sell their newborn baby, to pay hospital bills. Sharif Hosain explained to me during a telephone interview that Central Hospital Gazipur refused to release their baby, who was born by c-section (a procedure they were advised was necessary, but with little evidence to back this up) until the bills were paid in full. Sharif said that following threats of legal action and prosecution against his wife’s entire family for non-payment, Keya’s mother contacted a childless couple known to the family, and arranged the sale of their newborn baby—an incomprehensible situation for those living with ‘free access for all’ to public healthcare in countries like the UK. The Dhaka Tribune reported that when police were alerted, the baby was returned to Keya and Sharif, and the money repaid to the childless couple by a police commissioner.
During our interview, Sharif said that he and Keya had worked together for a year in a garment factory in Dhaka sewing vests and shirts, until the factory closed in April this year. He offered to give details of the factory, but is unable to read or write, and speaks Bangla only, so could not communicate these details clearly. Sharif lost his job due to Covid-19 before their child was born and was not paid for his last two months of work. Keya stopped working 5 months into her pregnancy. This left them without money for basic necessities, let alone extortionate hospital bills.
This shocking situation is not an isolated incident, explained Nazma Akter, founder of the Awaj Foundation, an NGO providing training, and emergency support to garment workers facing destitution, discrimination, and violence. Akter explained during a separate telephone interview that it is commonplace for workers to attend public hospitals, only to be diverted to private hospitals for, often unnecessary, tests and surgery by doctors who own ‘chambers’ there and stand to gain large profits and commissions. She told me of Awaj Foundation members being forced to sell land and empty their savings to pay doctors and hospital bills. What needs to happen right now to prevent this tragic situation repeating, I asked Akter? “Workers need a living wage and a social safety net,” she said.
Action In ‘Support’ Of Workers
So far, action to address the garment worker crisis has come mostly in the form of aid and high profile media campaigns, alongside a grant of €113m from the EU to pay three months’ salary for 1 million garment workers, who were left unemployed due to canceled garment orders in Bangladesh. After Remake launched ‘Payup’ in April, some additional brands committed to paying their suppliers in Bangladesh, but many remain silent and non-committal, apparently without consequence beyond ‘bad press’. This makes it hard to connect aid and awareness with actioning safe, dignified work environments and living wages in the long term.
While the ‘Payup’ campaign was being put into action, Bangladesh entered lockdown on 26th March, with transport shut down and businesses closed. The garment industry, however, was given an exemption from the lockdown. In an interview with the BBC, a garment worker said: “In my factory, there are so many of us working in such a small place, which increases the risk of coronavirus infection. I’m scared for my life.” Despite this fear and a lack of access to proper healthcare, coupled with the threat of job loss or unpaid salaries due to brands not paying suppliers (as in the case of Sharif Hosain) garment workers in Bangladesh have so far been offered ad hoc aid, at best.
Fast forward to July and a report was published in The Times revealing cramped working conditions, below living-wages, and garment workers being forced to carry on working in the garment factory ‘Jaswal Fashions’ despite testing positive for Covid-19. The factory was reportedly manufacturing clothing for fast-fashion brand Boohoo, who then hit the headlines in conjunction with a modern slavery inquiry. Boohoo was dropped by the retail stockists Next, Asos and Zalando, and saw a sharp decline in share price, with over £1.5bn wiped off their value (almost a third) within days. These decisive actions signaled a lack of tolerance from brands, investors, and consumers for unethical treatment of garment workers, sending a warning signal to brands working with manufacturers who don’t pay living wages or care adequately for staff. But why the dramatically different response this time, with retail, financial and government intervention, when the BBC article reporting the same issue resulted in no known action months before?
Worker ‘Value’ Depends on Location
The first case involved a factory and garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The second was in Leicester, UK. That is the only material difference—geography. This casts a horrible truth at the heart of the unethical treatment of garment workers: brands care (and act) when the exploitation is on their doorstep, but not when it is further afield in Asia. The proximity of the factory to Boohoo operations in Manchester and UK retailers was too close for comfort. Despite both news stories being shared in the UK media, the lack of action in the case of the Bangladeshi workers suggests a lack of empathy and interest in their plight, beyond social media ‘likes’ in ‘support’ of campaigns to aid garment workers.
I discussed this situation with Dr. Lipi Begum, Educator, and Researcher of Fashion Business, Innovation, and Inclusivity at London College of Fashion. Her father, who is of Bangladeshi origin, worked in a textile mill in Manchester when her family emigrated to the UK, and she believes that there are people in Leicester now working in similar conditions to those he experienced then, and that other garment workers in Bangladesh are experiencing today. Garment workers globally are vulnerable and exploited for commercial gain with their skills undervalued, according to Begum.
The imbalance in response to the two situations demonstrates bias and prejudice that attaches a lower value to the work, and workers, in countries such as Bangladesh. Dr. Begum explained to me that this extends to a lack of recognition of the innovation and skill in the garment and textile industry in Bangladesh, and instead a focus on cheap labor. There is much added-value that could come from closer partnerships between brands in Europe and manufacturers in Bangladesh, she says, but despite the expansion of the university design and trend forecasting curricula in 2011 at Bangladesh University of Fashion & Technology (BUFT) in partnership with London College of Fashion and Dr. Begum, brands have not engaged factories in providing this extra value. She believes they continue to perceive Bangladesh primarily as a place for high volume, low-value products that must be as cheap as possible, despite brands like Lidia May and London-based emerging design talent Rahemur Rahman producing their luxury leather goods and high-end fashion collections in the capital, Dhaka.
To ensure living wages for garment workers, the consequences Boohoo faces should be faced by all brands, regardless of where their manufacturing is done, if they are linked to unethical practices and worker exploitation. The current business model, which squeezes factories on price, with the brands holding the power in most cases, must change. Equitable partnerships are seen by fashion industry analysts and advisors as to the prime solution to several fundamental problems the industry currently faces, including inaccurate pricing, low wages, lack of investment in new technologies and upskilling, the oversupply of stock, a lack of digital transformation, supply chain opacity and prohibitively long lead times. To achieve living wages, the model of making cut-price clothing with a margin of cents in high volumes will not deliver.
Living Wages Require New Business Models
Entrepreneurs in fashion and retail are proposing new models that are built upon shared equity and data-based style selection, in response to the consumer market, rather than flooding it with products subjectively decided upon by a buyer, based on instinct. Cally Russell of Mallzee told me that if the root cause of suppliers being squeezed to the tiniest of margins per unit is because the brand expects to have to discount by at least 20-30% to shift the product, then the model has inbuilt failures. And garment workers are paying the biggest price for this.
Lost Stock is a startup putting together boxes of abandoned stock (unpaid for by brands) and selling them to consumers based on color, style, and size preferences, with the bonus of knowing that 37% of the proceeds go to the respective garment workers in Bangladesh. Russell states that he was warned by several industry insiders not to pay factories directly for the boxes, due to a risk that they may not pass the funds on to the workers, or they may use the funds to keep their business afloat, or worse, they may close down. The Lost Stock initiative, created by Cally Russell’s team at Mallzee, has been met with criticism from the likes of Remake, who say that Lost Stock lets non-paying brands off the hook. Russell openly admits that there are flaws in the initiative and that they entered into it somewhat naively, with a steep learning curve ensuing. He explained that Lost Stock “Pays the freight on board (FOB) price of the stock to the factory in part cash (30%) and part vouchers from NGOs (equivalent to the 37%) for the garment workers,” which are then distributed by the factory. NGOs are prohibited from distributing cash in Bangladesh. The remainder of the revenue is split between logistics, transaction costs and postage, with 9% going to Lost Stock, which Russell hopes will cover the cost of their 25 staff and any returns.
When I asked Russell the likelihood of this initiative leading to living wages and dignified working conditions, he explained that Lost Stock is a “proof of concept” for a long-term business venture (currently under wraps) based on shared equity partnerships between a retail business and a handful of factories in Bangladesh. In the model, the garment styles and volumes will be manufactured based on “aggregated eCommerce data from Mallzee,” which indicates macro trends and shifts in consumer behavior and preferences—essentially, producing what there is a demand for, and nothing else, thereby securing living wages in place of heavy discounting.
This is the crux of a fashion industry where garment workers are paid a living wage—new business models where the power dynamic between brands and manufacturers is equal and there is transparency from end-to-end. Where manufacturer and supply chain stakeholders aren’t forced to relinquish a fair piece of the pie to make up for losses caused by bad decision making by retailers and brands. In conjunction with this is digital transformation, and the implementation of streamlined processes to allow production ‘on-demand’ based on emerging consumer trends. This may be trickier to navigate with Bangladesh tending to have logistical limitations that can threaten the fast turnaround of products. It is clear though, that new business models have living-wage capacity built into pricing structures so that workers like Keya Akter and Sharif Hosain are not at the mercy of ad hoc aid and institutional exploitation in times of crisis.