Workers’ rights in the clothing industry and what consumers can do

The global clothing industry has a history of poor working conditions and unfair treatment of its workers.

We take a detailed look at the impact of the pandemic on the industry, whether anything has improved since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, and profile some campaigns you can get involved with to help bring about change.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but its effects have been felt particularly acutely by workers in the garment sector. As the pandemic took hold across the globe and many countries entered national lockdowns, demand for shop-bought clothes decreased significantly, leading many major clothing brands to cancel orders, delay payments, and impose discounts on suppliers.

The impact of Covid-19 on the global clothing industry

The shockwaves broke most heavily on factory workers. Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), a global network dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries, estimates that in the first three months of the pandemic alone, garment workers around the world were owed between $3.19 billion and $5.78 billion in wages.

In many garment-producing countries the national minimum wage, if it exists, is set far lower than what is actually required – the perceived need for governments to attract international capital being in direct tension with workers’ rights. For example, in Bangladesh the minimum wage for garment workers is $94 per month, whereas the living wage is estimated to be $569 per month.

For this reason, even a slight decrease in wages can push workers and their families into destitution, which is exactly what has happened.

In 2020, the Worker Rights Consortium conducted interviews with 396 garment workers across nine countries and found that 77% reported that they or a member of their household had gone hungry since the beginning of the pandemic, with 20% experiencing hunger on a daily basis.

Khalid Mahmood speaking at garment workers rally
Khalid Mahmood - Image courtesy of Clean Clothes Campaign

Garment workers in Pakistan continue to endure extreme hardship during the pandemic

Khalid Mahmood, the Regional Urgent Appeals Coordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign, based in Lahore, Pakistan and Director of the Labour Education Foundation, sheds light on the effect of the pandemic on garment workers.

Over a year has passed since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis and garment workers are still facing an unrelenting combination of job loss, unpaid wages, unsafe conditions, and harassment at work.

Unfair working practices

Even before the pandemic, wages in the industry were set at poverty levels. Garment workers in Pakistan often earn less than the legal minimum wage (the equivalent of £79 per month for unskilled workers). Women workers are routinely paid less than men for work of equal value or are employed in roles with lower piece rates than male colleagues. These inadequate wages meant that most workers had no savings when the Covid-19 crisis hit.

Only one garment factory out of hundreds in Faisalabad in Pakistan, paid workers their full wages during the 2020 lockdown. Even then, workers relied on support from extended family, friends, and charitable organisations. After lockdown, almost all factories dismissed half of their workers, whilst others only worked on alternative days, earning half their salary. Despite registering with the government’s support programme, many did not get any provisions. Factories justified the job losses, saying they could no longer sustain the full workforce after a reduction of orders from global brands.

Poor working conditions

In addition to unpaid wages and job loss, workers highlighted that, even before the pandemic, occupational health and safety (OSH) measures were non-existent in smaller factories. In large factories, despite the presence of fire extinguishers and emergency exit doors, there was not enough training for workers on safety measures.

During the pandemic, workers have been required to wear masks. However, from our observations, only two factories out of 30 provided masks and sanitizer for workers, meaning that the majority of workers were left out of pocket. The same two factories were the only ones that checked workers’ temperatures and installed sanitation facilities at the gate. These safety measures were a double-edged sword: if workers had a fever, they were sent home without pay.

Verbal abuse and harassment have also increased during the pandemic as job security has eroded. Mass lay-offs, in combination with workers facing extreme financial difficulties during the lockdowns, have resulted in a growing fear of job losses. Workers who are desperate to stay employed are forced to endure poor treatment from supervisors and management.

Abuse against female workers

Women workers report that gender-based harassment is common in almost all the factories. They are vulnerable to harassment from male colleagues and management, as well as unwanted attention on their journeys home, especially at night. Supervisors often use abusive language, and target women workers if they refuse their offers of ‘friendship’.

There is no training to combat harassment and discrimination, and women workers cannot see any solutions. Complaining is seen as counterproductive, as management will often dismiss the complainant along with the perpetrator, saying that she must have done something wrong to invite this kind of behaviour.

Financial difficulties

Workers should not have to pay for the pandemic, but that is exactly what is happening. Over the last year, workers have suffered huge losses in the form of severance theft and unpaid wages. This has forced them to take out loans and sell household items to cover the costs of food. Whilst workers face destitution, the global brands which profit from their labour continue to profit.

As the situation has deteriorated during the Covid-19 crisis, workers are raising their voices to claim their human rights. The right for workers to join a trade union and have freedom of association is under attack. In many factories there are no effective unions to bargain with employers, and this means that workers have little hope of improving their working conditions.

Taking action for the future

Over 230 trade unions and labour rights organisations are echoing workers’ demands and are calling on brands and employers to commit to a negotiated and legally binding agreement on wages, severance and basic labour rights. Brands and employers have turned their backs on workers during the pandemic, and we must make sure this can never happen again.

To find out more and join the #PayYourWorkers campaign, sign the petition online and visit the Pay Your Workers website.

Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh
Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh – the deadliest garment factory disaster in history. Image courtesy of War On Want.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,133 people and critically injuring thousands more, making it the deadliest garment factory disaster in history. Following this, The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, commonly referred to simply as ‘the Accord’, was created.

The Accord is an independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to work towards a safe and healthy garment and textile industry in Bangladesh and is generally seen as the gold standard for safety. 220 brands signed the first five-year accord, leading to significantly safer working environments for millions of garment workers in Bangladesh.

In 2018, over 190 brands signed the ‘Transition Accord’ which renewed the initial agreement. The current agreement came to an official end in May 2021, though a three-month extension has been approved while negotiations between trade unions and brands continue.

According to Clean Clothes Campaign, the Accord’s renewal is proving difficult because

“negotiating companies suddenly turned out to have backtracked from their commitments and only offered a watered-down version of the Accord.”

Supporting the Accord

It is essential that the Accord is renewed once again to prevent tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse from happening again.

Labour Behind the Label and other campaign groups are urging brands to renew their commitment but by July 2021, only ASOS and Uniqlo had made positive statements of support for renewing the Accord. However, in August 2021 brands and unions agreed on a new International Accord to be in effect from 1st September.

By 2nd September, over 90 brands had signed up to a renewed Accord, binding for 26 months, including H&M, Inditex (Zara), John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Matalan, New Look and Next.

How can consumers support the Accord?

To find out how you can support the campaign to renew the Accord, go to the Clean Clothes Campaign website.

You may also want to contact high street brands to encourage them to support it, and avoid shopping with ones that haven't signed up, either now or ever.

Brands that have never supported the Accord

Of the brands in our guide to high street clothes the following brands source considerable amounts of clothes from Bangladesh, yet have never been a signatory to the Accord:

Pakistan garment workers protest
Garment workers protest about conditions, Pakistan. Image by Anne Bienias for #PayYourWorkers, courtesy of Clean Clothes Campaign

Support campaigns for garment workers

As well as supporting ethical brands and steering clear of unethical brands, supporting political campaigns is an important way to affect change. We outline some of the campaigns you can get involved with to help improve conditions for garment workers around the world.

#PayYourWorkers campaign

Throughout the pandemic, the Clean Clothes Campaign has been pressuring brands to meet their obligations and ensure that the workers in their supply chains are paid. The #PayUp campaign focused on getting brands to pay suppliers for orders placed before the crisis and has helped recoup around $22 billion in cancelled orders. However, this is no guarantee that workers will actually be paid.

The #PayYourWorkers campaign, also run by CCC, aims to do just this. It is calling on brands to publish a wage assurance statement committing them to pay all apparel, textile, and footwear workers in their supply chains their legally mandated or regular wages and benefits.

To sign the petition asking brands to commit to the wage assurance and find out how else you can support the campaign, visit the Pay Your Workers website.

Make company directors legally responsible for supply chains

The campaign group Fashion Revolution have argued that company directors need to be made legally responsible for the conditions in their supply chain, a step that has been taken in other nations.

“The scope of the recently introduced loi de vigilance in France covers the activities of subcontractors and suppliers with whom a company has an established commercial relationship, and this sort of legislation is essential if we are to see real change, particularly amongst the laggards in the industry. Under French law, Boohoo directors would have been held legally responsible for the many human rights abuses identified in their supply chain."

Purchasing practices and the call for a Fashion Watchdog

Ethical Consumer spoke to Fiona Gooch, the senior private sector policy advisor at Traidcraft Exchange about purchasing practices and the campaign for a Fashion Watchdog.

What is meant by 'purchasing practices'?

Fiona Gooch: Purchasing practices include a lot of things: the price, the design, the delivery date, the volume, the payment terms of the order, and the way these are communicated and negotiated.

Some companies behave fairly and properly when they negotiate these things; many don’t.

What is the problem with current purchasing practices?

FG: The way brands and retailers buy in clothes causes job losses, poverty wages, excessive overtime, and unsafe conditions for the people who make our clothes everywhere in the world.

UK garment retailers are among the worst offenders. Many retailers pay suppliers up to 6 months after receiving the products. While factories are waiting to be paid, they have to pay interest on loans to cover ongoing costs such as material and wages. In effect, fashion retailers are using suppliers in developing countries to subsidise their business, passing risks and costs onto them.

Other ways brands squeeze their suppliers is by changing designs while keeping the same delivery date; changing the volume of orders they’ve agreed, or even telling suppliers that they’ll only pay them once a majority of the stock has been sold through their shops. These abusive practices have disastrous knock-on effects.

Suppliers have to find a way to absorb the extra costs passed on to them. They can’t recover the cost of fabric and materials, so they squeeze their workers to make up the shortfall – dropping pregnancy and maternity rights, demanding unpaid overtime, or failing to make factories safer.

In China, the relentless squeeze from UK fashion brands continues to create demand for forced labour of Uyghur Muslims.

What can be done to solve the problem?

FG: We’re calling for a new Fashion Watchdog to break this vicious circle. Getting this watchdog will save lives. We fought for a similar watchdog for supermarkets which drastically improved the abusive way supermarkets bought in food from suppliers (reported breaches dropped from 79% to 29%). When suppliers are treated fairly and paid quickly, they can pay their workers properly and invest in making their factory a safer and better place to work.

In March this year, an important group of MPs echoed our call for a regulator and the Government is considering the proposal, but the UK ministers for Business are in a muddle about the root causes of labour rights abuses.

How can people support the campaign?

1. Sign the Traidcraft Exchange petition for a new #FashionWatchdog that will hold UK garment retailers to high standards.

2. Share the petition with friends and family, and share the explainer video 'The cost of fast fashion #FashionWatchdog' by Traidcraft Exchange.

3. Contact your MP – you can use the petition text as the basis of what you write.

How to make your clothing choices more ethical

1. Read our shopping guide to ethical clothing choices including 28 recommended brands.

2. Avoid shopping with brands who aren't signed up to various regulatory frameworks - see our guide to high street clothing for more info.

3. Support the campaigns outlined above including:

4. Use our 10 top tips for avoiding fast fashion to change your habits with smaller and bigger tricks.