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The hidden world of wage theft in fashion

The pandemic held a magnifying glass to the ingrained exploitation of garment workers across the globe. While the issue is far from resolved, the recent success of campaigns against it signifies change is afoot.

Earlier this year, an investigation conducted by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) brought to light the hidden world of wage theft in fashion.

According to the report, which covered eight factories supplying sixteen major international brands – including Primark, Nike, and H&M – 9,843 workers were fighting to have their salaries and legally-owed benefits paid at the time.

‘Apparel suppliers have been refusing to pay the legal minimum wage and brands have been letting this continue when they know they are the only ones with the power to stop this widespread wage theft,’ executive director of The Worker Rights Consortium, Scott Nova, told The Guardian.

‘Payment of minimum wage is pretty much the lowest bar on a brand’s responsibility towards its workforce. If they won’t even insist on this being paid then they are letting a human rights violation on a huge scale continue with impunity.’

Not only this, but it was revealed recently that over 400,000 workers in an Indian production hub have not been paid the state of Karnataka’s legal minimum wage since April 2020, a total amount that WRC estimates to be more than £41m.

And, making the already precarious situation demonstrably worse, the pandemic has left many laid off without severance and others victims of dangerous working conditions due to cancelled orders from cash-strapped companies.

While the issue is far from resolved, these appalling findings have been enough to motivate both workers-rights advocates and organisations to push brands to #PayUp and for better protective legislations. So far, the success of their campaigns has signified that change is afoot.

For starters, the Bangladesh Accord, which was devised in the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse and has since helped identify 87,000 safety issues – subsequently eliminating 90% of them – has been extended.

At risk of expiring in January when brands began looking for easier options so they wouldn’t be legally and financially at fault, mounting public pressure has resulted in both its extension and expansion.

Now, known as the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, it promises to stretch farther than just Bangladesh and cover a wider range of human rights concerns.

This isn’t all, however, because in September, the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) was passed in California to hold brands and supply chains accountable for stolen wages as well as outlaw the piece-rate system whereby employers pay workers per unit of production instead of an hourly rate or a salary.

In Los Angeles, this has seen a staggering number of employees (the majority of which are undocumented women from Latin America and Asia working in conditions likened to sweatshops) earning as little as $2.68 an hour.

‘This bill is a first-of-its-kind win in America, and a lot of non-profits and workers groups took note of this incredible victory,’ director of Garment Worker Centre, Marissa Nuncio, told Yes Magazine.

‘Garment workers have been exploited and failed by the system for far too long, and because of the tireless organising efforts of those workers, the industry will become something California can finally be proud of.’

Though the California Chamber of Commerce labelled the bill a ‘jobs killer’ in July, a coalition of at least 70 businesses wrote an open letter in support of it, stressing SB62 would not only help workers but level the playing field between companies that pay a living wage and those that don’t.

Thanks to them and the continued efforts of campaigners and employees alike, the struggle for garment worker rights has taken yet another step forward.

 

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‘We are already driving conversations with labour groups in other countries on the implications of SB62 and the mandatory human rights due diligence efforts in Europe,’ finishes Nuncio.

‘I hope this harkens a new era of sharpening the focus on brands’ commercial practices, unfair contracts, and downward pressure on prices, which is the root cause for poverty wages and sweatshop conditions.’

Here’s hoping these successes set in motion a total industry reform that will ensure brands never have the opportunity to engage in wage theft again.

 

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