By Tamara Somasundaram
Since the turn of the century, the fashion industry has seen dramatic changes in its operation. A model has been favoured that undercuts workers’ rights in the pursuit of making clothes quickly and cheaply in order to profit large multinational companies, dubbed ‘fast fashion’. The precarious nature of employment that has become ever more common in the industry means that workers usually have no choice but to work for poverty wages, or face unemployment.
Covid-19 has resulted in a sharp decline in the demand for fashion products. Unfortunately, this has meant that garment workers in developing regions have been left without employment, with brands cancelling orders due to this lack of demand. Simultaneously, we are in an era of greater public concern with sustainability, and people are increasingly holding brands to account for their environmental and ethical practices. With that in mind, could the system be changed in a way that favours workers’ rights and the environment?
The fast fashion model
The increase in recent decades of economic globalisation has led to the outsourcing of manufacturing from Global North to Global South countries. In the garment industry, this has included countries in South and South East Asia, and increasingly other regions like East Africa. At the same time, a rise in consumer demand from the Global North has led to a dramatic increase in global garment production. From 2000 to 2014, global production of clothing has doubled. Yet, in the United States, almost 85% of clothing that is consumed ends up in landfills, with disastrous environmental impacts.
On the supply side, the fast fashion model is reliant on cheap labour. Factories in the Global South usually find themselves competing to sell the lowest possible wages to giant multinational brands. This has effectively created a ‘race to the bottom’ for workers’ rights and wages. A study by Labour Behind the Label found that garment workers across Asia would need to be paid on average 2 to 5 times higher to receive a real living wage. This means that industry standard wages are simply not enough to live on, plunging workers into deep poverty.
Nonetheless, there have recently been some efforts made by governments and factory owners to improve conditions. Since the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013, which resulted in the death of over a thousand workers, a number of measures have been put in place to improve worker safety in factories. However, these individual efforts of factories are constrained by the wider global system. A brand can just move their business elsewhere, somewhere with cheaper labour.
Garment workers do not only work in factories. Many work from home, increasingly more so since Covid-19. There is also a gendered element to this, as many homeworkers are women. They are often involved in even more precarious work practices, lacking essential labour rights such as sick pay and maternity pay. In South Asia, homeworkers report sometimes only being paid twice a year. To keep up with their rent payments, they may resort to taking out loans, putting them at greater risk of ending up in debt. This precarious nature of work can lead to many workers ending up in a poverty cycle of indebtedness and insecure employment.
Since March, the decline in fashion consumption has led to workers being laid off globally due to a lack of orders. Brands and retailers have effectively ‘cut and run’, with a million workers in Bangladesh alone being left without employment, highlighting the insecurity of fashion industry labour. In Bangladesh, workers’ rights have also suffered as unions have declined dramatically since the 1960s. This is the result of a model of global neoliberal capitalism that puts profit before people. But could the tide be turning?
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been some local wins. For instance, in March, a textiles union in South Africa guaranteed six weeks of full pay for 80,000 workers during lockdown. But more can still be done. Looking forward, we can use the changes that the unfortunate pandemic has caused to reimagine a better world for the future. Fast fashion is reliant on the demand for the exorbitant production of clothes, and the abundance of cheap labour to produce it. However, we are seeing a departure in previous popular orthodoxies. People globally are not satisfied with big brands’ impact on people and the environment. That has been coupled with the pandemic, which has overseen a decrease in demand for these fashion products due to lockdowns. This could be a catalyst for change.
Moving away from a deeply entrenched fast fashion model would be difficult. However, we should still consider how improvements could be made. Firstly, we should show solidarity with garment workers in the Global South, and support movements against fast fashion. Secondly, we should put pressure on brands to change their abhorrent practices and show preference to a slow fashion model. This means continuing to lobby and campaign for a fairer system and exposing the injustices that occur. The changes that Covid-19 has sprung onto the world could be used to enact a meaningful change. In the fashion industry, this should mean secure, guaranteed work for employees globally, making fewer clothes for shorter hours and higher wages.
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Tamara is a master’s student in International Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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