In a historic victory over the fashion industry, garment personnel have gained billions in stolen wages

Image: Collected
In March 2020, Amanda Lee McCarty was let go from her job.

For years, she had been working in the style industry as a buyer and product developer. But as COVID-19 instances surged and lockdown orders had been implemented around the world, vendors were faced with a dramatic plummet in customer demand for attire. McCarty, who had been the only real breadwinner in her relatives for the majority of her life, was left with out a steady money or health insurance.

McCarty wasn’t the only person in the global clothing industry whose future was first thrust into uncertainty.

A large number of miles away, in countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, outfits factories had just received catastrophic media from retailers found in the West. So that you can offset the personal losses of the pandemic, executives had made a swift and nearly universal decision: These were likely to steal $40 billion from their most vulnerable workers. 

“This wasn’t theoretical money,” said Elizabeth L. Cline, who works together with the buyer activist nonprofit Remake. “This is garment personnel not being paid for work previously done, which is normally slavery.”

For most brands, this theft had not been only legal, but outlined within their contracts with factories overseas, which allowed them to cancel orders anytime. Retailers cited a drive majeure clause to declare that they didn’t have to take clothing that they had ordered before the pandemic - and they also didn’t need to pay for it, whether or not the product had already been made after thousands of hours of painstaking labor.

This decision was enforced by practically all the world’s most rewarding apparel companies, only 20 of whom control 97 percent of the industry’s profits. Among the offenders had been Walmart, Sears, Kohl’s, Nike, Forever 21, H&M, Gap, Adidas, The Children’s Place and Ross Retailers.

What followed was among the largest transfers of wealth from the Global South to the West found in recent history.

The effect of the cancellations was immediate: factories, who could no longer afford to pay textile mills and workers, were forced to shut their doors. An incredible number of garment workers, almost all of them young females, were sent house without severance or give.

While wealthy fashion brands continued to deliver shareholder payouts, workers already living in poverty were plunged also much deeper into debt and starvation. 

“Why were companies so comfortable robbing their factories in the center of the biggest humanitarian crisis of our lifetimes?” Cline stated. “It had a lot to do with the actual fact that the persons impacted had been in the Global South. These were girls of color, who companies were used to being able to subjugate without any implications - who they imagined weren’t going to endure them.”

The firms were wrong. In a matter of times, a movement was created, comprised of non-governmental institutions, or NGOs, and a large number of garment employees, grassroots organizers and buyers across the globe. They named their first campaign after their most important demand: PayUp.

By March 2021, PayUp had secured $22 billion from makes who had initially refused to give, and laid bare the exploitation fundamental to the global supply chain. It was just about the most effective labor rights promotions in the style industry today - and activists say they’re just starting out.

“This is a business that is part of every person’s life, but nobody really knows what goes on behind the scenes,” said McCarty, who became a vocal advocate for the movement after being let go from her job. “If a manufacturer is definitely refusing to pay out up, it’s likely they’re paying slave wages to begin with, rather than caring about the climate and burning vast amounts of dollars of surplus clothing each year. When you take a step back, the style industry is very a research study of everything that's wrong in the world right now.” 

Holding brands accountable

From its foundation, PayUp’s strategy has gone to discern which brands are moveable and to then target those brands using grassroots pressure. 

“We knew if we were likely to wait for fashion brands to get a conscience, nothing would change,” said Cline, among the founders of the movement. “It was public know-how who canceled, so we had a list of businesses and the amount of money they owed, but we needed a bigger picture of that which was happening.”

For that reason, the testimony of garment workers themselves has been critical to the victory of PayUp. In November 2020, the Worker Rights Consortium produced a survey of garment personnel who had dropped their jobs across Cambodia, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Lesotho and Myanmar. Practically 75 percent of the workers reported entering debt to get food because the pandemic began. Various described skipping meals as a way to feed their own families, being unable to afford food with protein, and having to withdraw their children from school due to lack of funds. 

Garment employees who remained employed, a lot of whom were performing overtime to produce personal protective apparatus for countries in the West, were similarly plunged into destitution. Even while the world’s most successful fashion brands saw an 11 percent increase in value in the last year, garment staff experienced fork out cuts averaging around 21 percent.