In the global fashion supply chain, COVID has significantly magnified longstanding concerns around wages, worker health and safety, and labour rights. And that means the daily risks faced by the garment workers who make our clothes have massively increased.
This is why we have developed the COVID Fashion Commitments: six straightforward commitments for fashion brands in Australia to make to the workers in their supply chains – and for us as consumers to call on them to deliver.
In light of the devastating impact of COVID on garment workers, we commit to working together to do all we can to:
For further explanation of each Commitment, see below.
These commitments are aligned with the International Labour Organisation’s Call to Action, and calls from other civil society groups.
The fashion brands you buy from rely on a web of suppliers to cut and sew the clothing, produce the fabric, and grow the raw materials. At each step in this chain, workers are reliant on the global fashion industry for their income. The further back we go in this supply chain, the more hidden these workers are – and the greater the risk that their employers and governments won’t have the resources, or the will, to support them through COVID.
The steps that fashion companies take now – for better or worse – will have a ripple effect through their entire supply chains. Our shared goal to protect workers and improve their working conditions has never been more important.
Baptist World Aid’s response is the COVID Fashion Commitments.
We are calling on companies to support their suppliers in paying workers’ wages. In the global fashion supply chain, it is common for companies to pay for orders many months after their delivery. As retailers around the world temporarily shut-up shop, demand for clothing has plummeted. Suppliers are left vulnerable to companies cancelling orders that are already complete or underway, with no cashflow to pay workers’ wages. Failure to pay wages will push garment workers already living on the poverty line deeper into despair. We join with other campaigns to ask companies to honour their commitments to their suppliers, by accepting and paying for orders that are underway, or complete, and avoiding the severance of contracts wherever possible.
In this time of crisis, the risk to workers has never been greater. In varying degrees around the world – and depending on local infection rates, the extent of government lockdowns, and the provision of health infrastructure – workers are vulnerable to the risk of infection. This is compounded by financial vulnerability through insecure employment, loss of wages, and inadequate social welfare systems. The actions that companies take will need to be different, depending on the context and makeup of their workforce in each of their sourcing regions. We are asking companies to assess their supply chain to identify those areas where workers will be at highest risk. Based on this assessment, companies will need to determine the most appropriate strategies to move forward in protecting and supporting these workers.
It has never been more important for companies to hear from the workers that make their clothes. While the risk to workers has never been greater, social-distancing rules also make it increasingly difficult for workers to meet and voice their concerns. Independent unions, collective associations, and grievance mechanisms (such as hotlines and email channels) are incredibly important ways for workers to escalate concerns beyond factory management, directly to the fashion brand itself. For brands to appropriately address the risks garment workers are facing, they need to know when necessary health measures are not being taken, wages are not being paid, or workers are forced to work overtime. Companies need to work through these challenges to ensure they can continue to hear worker voices in whatever way possible – through robust grievance mechanisms, alternative unionisation efforts, or other local initiatives – and most importantly, respond appropriately.
Given the increased risk to workers’ safety, compliance both with normal labour rights standards and with specific coronavirus health advice is more important than ever. In factories that are still operating, it’s crucial that workers can safely practice physical distancing in the places where they work and live, and that they are not being forced to work long hours to turn around orders. This crisis is no excuse to turn a blind eye to labour rights abuses. While movement around the globe is restricted, normal social auditing regimes may not be possible. Nevertheless, we are calling on companies to invest in immediate supplier monitoring, by whatever means possible. Innovative methods such as digital audits, monitoring grievance data, and data sharing between buyers, are all ways to maintain visibility of supply chain conditions. This ultimately ensures workers’ safety is respected, while adhering to current health advice.
We acknowledge that addressing these complex supply chain challenges is not a simple task. One of the most effective ways companies can seek to resolve the issues at hand is through industry collaboration. The fashion industry is well placed to do this, with established collaborative projects offering the opportunity to discuss common problems, share monitoring data, and set shared targets. As we have all discovered personally during this time, while we remain physically distant, connection is key to our survival. The same rings true for companies. We encourage companies to collaborate with other industry stakeholders, advocate to governments, and engage with established non-government organisations in their sourcing regions so that together, we can do everything possible to enable an environment where workers are protected.
COVID places us at a critical moment in history – one that we know has already, and will continue to, result in significant human suffering. We grieve this suffering. We stand ready to join fashion companies in mitigating the impact wherever possible. However, at this critical time, we also invite companies to go beyond mitigation. Even in the darkest times, there is opportunity: a chance to pause and boldly consider a radically different future. We are hopeful for a future where the fashion industry is actively contributing to positive social and environmental change. And we are committed to turning this hope into action. In this final commitment, as we move toward a post-coronavirus world, we ask companies to assess the resources and opportunities they have within their business model to do just that.
Baptist World Aid has also published a special edition of the Ethical Fashion Report that assessed the way individual companies and the industry have actively stood with workers during COVID, and the efforts they started making to ensure their post-COVID business practices are more focussed on the wellbeing of workers and the world.
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