Cost vs People: worker insecurity during the pandemic

It is time for the textiles industry to manage its supply chain in a responsible and ethical manner, foregrounding transparency, honesty, and fair working conditions for garment workers around the world.

Unfortunately, poor labour rights and environmental degradation in outsourced manufacturing countries are a negative legacy of the industry. 

Garment workers are one of the most vulnerable and unprotected workforces in the world. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many retailers cancelled millions of dollars worth of orders, plunging garment workers into uncertainty. Despite the fact that orders were often processed, finished, and ready for transportation, they were ultimately left to pile-up in Bangladesh’s abandoned factories, symbolising the severance of the global supply chain. 

Some organisations like Clean Clothes Campaign and Remake have put fresh pressure on big labels to #PayUp their fair share and compensate factories for cancelled orders. Now, it is imperative that companies stop waiting around and take the initiative to adopt socially responsible business practices.

Outsourcing the human cost: Rana Plaza

As we commemorate the 8th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, we are reminded of the devastating impact of the cost vs people mindset. In April 2013, 1,134 garment workers lost their lives to a wholly preventable workplace tragedy. It was the worst man-made disaster in the history of the textiles industry, forcing companies to the bargaining table to put workers rights into writing.

The owners of the building ignored warnings on the crumbling infrastructure, continuing to reap the profits of underpaid Bangladeshi workers. Factories operating inside Rana Plaza were producing for several major brands and retailers, including JCPenney, Walmart, and Primark. 

Cost v people
Relatives desperately search for their relatives who were in the collapsed factory (Rana Plaza).

The cost vs people paradigm has never been as relevant during this time of global turmoil and uncertainty. 

These companies had conducted audits in the months preceding the collapse but failed to detect safety violations and potentially life-threatening hazards.

Consolidating worker welfare

After the tragedy of Rana Plaza, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety was ratified. Both agreements specified that signatories must publicly disclose their supplier factories to enhance supply chain transparency and improve worker conditions. Accord signatories included European brands like H&M, Hugo Boss, and Primark, whilst a majority of North-American retailers like Walmart, Gap and Target signed up for the non-binding Alliance.

The Accord is an independent and legally binding document between companies and trade unions, set apart from other CSR initiatives due to its enforceable principles. It specifies public disclosure of factory inspections and acceptance of worker representatives to educate employees on health and safety, giving workers the right to walk away from poor working conditions. However, the Alliance is a verbal agreement between buyers to uphold worker safety at supplier facilities and does not have enforcement authority or worker participation. 

The Clean Clothes Campaign

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) is a global network dedicated to empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries. CCC educates and mobilises consumers, lobbies, companies, and governments across the world, offering direct solidarity support to workers as they fight for their rights and demand better working conditions.

The grassroots organisation states that any business model claiming to be ethical, sustainable or socially responsible must include more than a voluntary self-assessment at its core:

“We cannot leave companies accountable to no one but themselves. Evidence shows time and again how the social audit industry, as a way to monitor working conditions, has failed spectacularly in its proffered mission of protecting workers’ safety and improving working conditions.

Instead, it has protected the image and reputation of brands and their business models, while standing in the way of more effective models that include mandatory transparency and binding commitments to remediation.

Among the plethora of existing initiatives to monitor working conditions, only the programmes that address the root causes of labour violations with legal accountability at its core will truly transform and protect the lives of the people making our clothes. All others cannot prevent another Rana Plaza.”

The Bangladesh Accord – the most successful safety programme in the contemporary history of apparel supply chains – expired on 31 May of this year. Many retailers and fashion brands came together to temporarily extend the agreement until August, extending the time for negotiation between companies and workers. However, weakening the legal accountability of the Accord agreement is risking the lives of innumerable workers.

Only the programmes that address the root causes of labour violations with legal accountability at its core will truly transform and protect the lives of the people making our clothes.

“The Accord is widely recognised as a proven model that meets the requirements of human rights due diligence. Brands can continue the progress achieved over the past five years and maintain their reputation as industry leaders. Or they can turn away from the path of progress by allowing the Accord to expire, with grim consequences for workers.”

Mobilising action: Remake’s #PayUp petition

Remake Logo

Remake is a non-profit organisation dedicated to igniting a conscious consumer movement and fighting for decent working conditions in garment factories around the world. 

In March 2020, Remake launched the #PayUp campaign at the start of the pandemic when major brands and retailers refused to pay their factories for $40 billion worth of apparel, despite the fact that much of it was already completed, sewn, and loaded onto ships headed to Western markets. 

The campaign had a very simple demand: for brands to pay their factories in full for any clothing that was in production prior to the pandemic. They also demanded that brands stick to the original terms of their contracts, meaning no discounts on their clothes (as factories already operate on razor-thin margins) and no delays in payments (brands already wait upward of 60 days to pay their factories). 

#PayUp was hugely successful at securing approximately $22 billion back from 24 major brands, including Zara, Levis, Nike, Primark, ASOS, Adidas, and many more. This was because 270k citizens signed Remake’s original #PayUp petition and millions more engaged with its campaign. 

#PayUp was hugely successful at securing approximately $22 billion back from 24 major brands.

payup signs

As successful as the #PayUp campaign was, it also underscored the need for fundamental reforms to reign in corporate impunity and truly eliminate the race to the bottom that puts workers’ lives at risk. In short, the public shouldn’t have to chase down hugely profitable companies to pay their garment makers during a global pandemic. And without big, bold changes, another crisis is around the corner.

After the #PayUp campaign scored some victories, Remake looked ahead to what systemic reform in the textiles industry should look like, based on two core ideas: Real brand accountability and centring women workers’ voices. PayUp Fashion, a coalition born out of the #PayUp campaign, is now working towards those big, bold changes in 7 Actions, which were developed by two female union leaders in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Among those 7 Actions is a demand that brands make legally binding commitments to protect human rights and labour rights in their factories. 

Pay up

No more voluntary initiatives without accountability. 

The actions demand garnering political will for better regulation, be it the EU’s Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence Law or California’s Garment Worker Protection Act. The demands are #PayUp, keep workers safe, transparency, give workers centre stage, sign enforceable contracts, end starvation wages, & help pass laws. 

Remake has fundraised tens of thousands of dollars on behalf of garment workers in frontline communities and is pressuring the International Labour Organisation’s Call to Action, an initiative to bring financial relief to garment workers and get brands to step-up and provide relief to the people who have kept them profitable for decades. #PayUp was just the start. Remake has only just begun to push for deep systemic reform. 

Why corporate social responsibility is integral for worker security

It’s important for brands to be held accountable for their actions as their decisions directly affect how the entire industry operates. From the beginning, the industry’s power dynamics have been structured in a way that allows brands to ultimately benefit from all the issues they cause: overproduction, poor forecasting and planning, lowering of prices and then pointing fingers at the suppliers and local governments for the health, safety, human rights violations and environmental destruction.

Across the globe, millions of garment workers in the supply chain are facing grim financial uncertainty as a result of delayed payments from brands.

This abuse of power ultimately led garment workers to where they are today. Across the globe, millions of garment workers in the supply chain are facing grim financial uncertainty as a result of delayed payments from brands. While some brands have agreed to #PayUp, others have refused to pay for all of their post-pandemic cancelled orders in a timely manner — if at all. 

The repercussions of these brands’ actions are devastating, with garment workers left food and housing insecure around the world.

Corporatewear giant Dimensions sheds light on supply chain

Dimensions is delighted to demonstrate its continued commitment towards being a responsible PPE supplier by retaining the British Safety Industry Federation’s (BSIF) Registered Safety Supplier Scheme.

Dimensions was the first corporatewear company to source extensively offshore, developing an established multi-site global sourcing chain that has been producing quality garments for over 30 years.

As full members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) for over 10 years, Dimensions fully endorses and supports ETI’s vision to act responsibly and promote decent work. Its strategy has been formulated to be consistent with the ETI Base Code, using this as the benchmark for audit – alongside country law – and implement its values into the supply chain.

The strategic direction of Dimensions is influenced by ethical considerations and political stability as well as technical ability and infrastructure, including logistics and availability of skilled and reliable partners.

Dimensions’ highly experienced sourcing team has well established and proven routes for specific fabrics and positions manufacturing in countries and factories renowned for expertise in specific garment types. 

Wherever possible, Dimensions locates manufacture as close as possible to fabric source to minimise transport cost, time, and environmental impact, purchasing ‘fully factored’ garments where appropriate, which allows more focused control and quicker responses.

The sourcing team comprehensively selects supply partners to ensure that the best quality products are being provided at the right price, ensuring that each partner meets all the required standards through regular audits. 

Approved suppliers undergo a rigorous approval process which includes a full factory evaluation and regular audits, using SMETA (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit) guidelines. This process ensures that workers are employed in a safe working environment and ethical and environmental standards are maintained.

Sourcing from Bangladesh

In January 2011, Dimensions opened a liaison office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to establish sourcing routes in the region. The company now has a team of 28 staff based at this office, including a dedicated Compliance Manager.

The opening of the Bangladesh office has allowed Dimensions to develop its sourcing in the region and participate in various charity schemes supporting the local workforce and community. They monitor working hours by requesting factories to send information to the compliance team where they have contributed to overtime hours.

CREATE Commitment

Dimension’s CSR policy and ‘Create’ plan depicts how they work with suppliers to educate workforces and provide an acceptable standard of employment and pay. First produced in 2015, CREATE details a five-year strategic plan with a focus on trading ethically and correctly, with the following core principles:

C We pledge to collaborate with NGOs, Trade Unions and Worker Representatives, implementing programmes to better the lives of workers in our supply chain.

R We pledge that we will recognise our most responsible suppliers who meet and exceed our requirements.

E We pledge to work with suppliers and third parties to reduce the impact our business has on the environment.

A We pledge that we will support our facilities through our audit process to ensure continuous improvement and drive towards best practice.

T We pledge to work towards full transparency in our supply chain.

E We pledge to educate our global supply chain partners to understand and develop our programme and strategies.

Dimension’s CSR initiatives

Inlight – Modern Slavery Supplier SAQ: Dimensions has partnered with Intertek to implement their Inlight programme which aims to deliver supply chain risk transparency and visibility.

Slave Free Alliance – Membership: The Slave Free Alliance is a social enterprise and membership initiative launched by anti-slavery charity Hope for Justice. Dimensions recognises that it needs to be at the forefront of a global movement and demonstrate an ethical commitment to its workforce.

HerProject – Health, Finance, Respect Educational Programs: Global supply chains are a major employer of women. Women represent an average of 68 per cent of the garment workforce and 45 per cent of the textile sector workforce. The HERproject can change the lives of women who work in the supply base by educating them on the importance of their equality, health and finances.

Community outreach

Fundraising is a major part of the Dimensions culture and CSR agenda. One charity that has always stayed constant in Dimensions’ fundraising activities is the Glory Bandhu Protim Samaj Kallayan Sangstha (GBSKS) Bangladesh School based in the slum areas of Dhaka.

Dimensions partners with 3 of its suppliers to manufacture school uniforms free of charge, using stock fabric to make sets for over 300 children, as well as shoes, socks, ties, scarves, bags and embroidered logos for each student. Members of the Dimensions board and compliance team have visited the GBSKS school and met with teachers and students alike. 

During the pandemic, the company was able to continue supporting its overseas communities by donating food packages to the families of the students in three schools in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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