One year ago during March 2020, fashion retail giants including the likes of H&M, Primark and Zara decided to retroactively cancel orders of clothing without paying for them. This had disastrous consequences for ready-made garment (RMG) workers in Bangladesh as many live subsistence-based due to meagre wages. This article looks into how cancellations due to COVID-19 have revealed the power imbalance within the garment industry between manufacturers and supplies, and the movements that are arising pushing for change.

The Changing Landscape of Accountability Since the Rana Plaza Tragedy

Shocking discoveries of power dynamics are not new within the textiles industry. After the collapse of the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza textiles factory, which killed 1134 people in 2013, fashion brands have been held to higher production standards by western consumers. Many consumers in the global north were deeply moved by the broadcasting depicting the poor working conditions of RMG workers and the deaths that ensued from the disaster. Many, until this tragedy, had little awareness of how their garments had been made. Since then, there has been an increase in interest by western consumers in who makes their clothes and how.

These resulting shifts towards ethical, conscious and sustainable purchases have often proved profitable for big multinational companies like the Swedish brand H&M, who regularly highlight their ‘conscious’ range. However, just like previous attempts to transform the fast fashion industry to be more ethical, those negatively impacted are the poorly paid workers; hit by ‘woke’ schemes created by large fashion houses to greenwash their image.This was all too clear when fashion retailers like Boohoo and H&M refused to pay garment workers for clothes that had already been made as to their order (the later cancelling product over $170 million USD in Bangladesh alone), in late March 2020.

The image shows the aftermath of the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory. (Photo: Sharat Chowdhury, Wikimedia Commons)

The Impact of Cancelled Garment Orders in Bangladesh

In countries where textile exports create vast economic growth per annum, the cancellations from abrupt societal shutdowns due to the pandemic were calamitous. Normally, textile manufacturing accounts for 83% of total export earnings in Bangladesh which has led to its position as the second largest apparel producer globally. However, due to the withdrawal of previous orders, between 17-19% of product was lost over the last year and is estimated to have equated to US $6 billion in lost export revenue in 2020. Furthermore, over a quarter of the 3.6 million strong Bangladeshi RMG workforce were fired, furloughed or moved from a permanent to a temporary worker basis as a result of the created instability.

This resulted in many RMG workers needing to take out loans to be able to cover their expenses which has led to debt accumulation and associated issues. Non-governmental organisations focusing on the textiles supply chain, such as Remake, have expressed concerns over starvation, rapidly deteriorating mental health and an increase in sex trafficking amongst garment workers. It is noteworthy that women have been particularly affected due to pre-existing patriarchal norms within the fashion industry, as well as in Bangladeshi society, which has historically made job security within the sector difficult. Although women at 80% of the workforce create an overwhelming majority, only 1 in 20 are promoted to supervisor roles. Male supervisors often use verbal and physical violence against their colleagues as intimidation tactics and have the power to hire and fire at will. Therefore, those losing their jobs since the pandemic are overwhelmingly female.

The Misconduct of Multinational Fashion Companies

Although the companies which halted their orders did not cause the pandemic, it led to an exacerbation of the consequences for RMG workers worldwide. The total worth of ‘cancelled’ clothing amounted to 1.5 billion USD in Bangladesh alone and the decision to do so was made with full knowledge of the intricacies and power dynamics within the supply chain. Factories often take out loans to buy stock to produce clothing and only cover costs once the product is received by those that ordered the garment. Therefore, many factories were under immense strain or even had to close due to inabilities to continue the financing of their business as payment was not received. 

Large fashion brands, however, received rescue packages and bail-outs which enabled them to continue their business, many moving online and remaining profitable. Furthermore, some retail giants have used the strain many manufacturers have experienced to pressure them to reduce prices and delay payment windows, to ensure their own stability through the pandemic. Often factories have little choice but to comply as competition in the global south within the industry is so competitive. This power imbalance is demonstrated by Adidas who made $682 million in earnings in 2020, while wages for garment workers dropped 21% globally. 

Photo: Tomás Castro Rojas for the #payup campaign.

The #PAYUP Campaign

Online, the injustice created ripples across activist communities. In response, leaders in the conscious fashion movement rallied around activist, campaigner and founder of Remake, Ayesha Barenblat, to demand that companies paid back what they owed through the online movement #payup. Models, activists and everyone in between reshared images of the hashtag while also tagging the companies which had yet to pay their bill. Ayesha describes the refusal of payment with fellow activist Elizabeth Cline as ‘simply put, wage theft, a heist from the West, with brands shoring up their own balance sheets and cash reserves in the name of “supply chain savings” to handsomely reward their own executives and shareholders at the cost of garment workers who already live paycheck to paycheck.’

The movement so far has pressured brands in paying back $22 billion. Furthermore, the campaign has moved on to demanding that companies not only pay back what they owe but also change their business practices through 6 further key ways, including creating enforceable contracts and ending ‘starvation wages’, which is covered in detail through individual company trackers. The aim of this revision is to once again utilize media pressure to change the landscape of the textiles supply chain to benefit all more proportionally in the coming years.

What is so significant and hopeful about this #payup movement is that it is powered by the belief in human rights. All actions are taken with the aim of promoting the humanisation of RMG workers by those who consume their garments. As such, the campaign aims to instil a feeling of responsibility on consumers that these fundamental rights are upheld. 

Whilst RMG workers are often portrayed as unskilled and uneducated, Remake and other organisations like Fashion Revolution (who created the campaign ‘Who Made My Clothes?’) share accounts from garment workers which cover their struggles and the complexities of their roles in the industry. Acknowledgement of their essential key worker status in capitalist society perhaps will create progress within the industry,  as it builds a bridge between those that make clothes and those that wear them.

Crucially, the pandemic has offered a chance for consumers to reconsider their roles within global supply chains through an art form that connects us all: fashion. The #payup campaign created a step towards connecting individuals back to the source of where their clothing came from in a globalized capitalist world, where many are unaware of the power dynamics between the global north and south. It will be interesting to see how future campaigns, like the one mentioned in this article, succeed in producing the tangible change needed for the wellbeing of both people and planet in the years to come.

Philippa Scholz