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Q&A: Women Workers in Fast Fashion Demand Justice

A woman at a sewing machine in a factory
Women wearing face masks work at a garment factory, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on May 5, 2020. © Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury/LightRocket/Getty

Garment workers in Asia produce most clothing in the global fast fashion industry. Many workers experience poverty-level wages, poor working conditions, and gender-based violence and discrimination. Recently, Open Society’s Roxanne Nazir spoke with the Asia Floor Wage Alliance’s Anannya Bhattacharjee about her group’s international campaign for collective industrial bargaining in the global garment industry.

Most fast fashion workers are people of color living outside of Europe and the United States. Approximately 80 percent are women. What can today’s global anti-racism uprisings teach us about the fast fashion industry?

Global fashion brands have promoted a culture of low prices and discounts. Fast turnaround fashion seasons exist to attract middle- and low-income consumers. However, this business model amasses profits in the hands of a few—and at the cost of impoverishing low-wage workers and families, many of whom live in Asia.

Pressured by brands, factory suppliers pay these workers less—particularly based on their gender and because they’re drawn to the high unemployment rates and low wages that exist in many countries in Asia. And this inequity has been factored into supply chain practices; in other words, social oppression is a “normal” business practice in the fashion industry, along the lines of race, caste, religion, gender, and migrant status

How would you describe the typical working conditions in a garment factory in Asia?

Women garment workers are often the primary earners and caretakers for their families. There are numerous issues these workers often face. Their families suffer when they are forced to work extremely long hours; and if they refuse, they are terminated without due process. I would argue that this is akin to forced labor; these workers must reach inhuman production targets at the cost of a meal or toilet breaks. They regularly face wage theft, too. 

Most workers do not get paid sick leave, and women workers are often denied maternity leave and access to childcare. Workers are often asked to sign blank papers so that employers can point to them as resignation letters later when defending themselves against legal action. Women workers also face gender-based violence in the workplace, including being forced to provide sexual favors. It is almost a norm in various places. Freedom of association is systematically denied to workers. This has been a core reason for insufficient worker power in the fashion industry.

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on the garment industry in Asia? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that those who are most impacted by changes in economic forces have the least control over them.

In the fashion industry, we have watched as large corporations who have amassed huge fortunes for decades grind work to a halt. They are cancelling orders, refusing to pay for completed or in-process orders, demanding discounts on goods already produced at poverty-level wages, and outsourcing their risks to those most vulnerable. Production countries, like India and Indonesia, have insufficient or no provisions for income support or social security; and supplier factories, which already operate with thin profit margins, have abandoned workers and shut down, or limited, operations. AFWA is demanding [PDF] that brands contribute towards humanitarian relief of workers. 

As lockdowns are being partially lifted, organized workers who have raised their voices, or who belong to socially marginalized groups, are facing discriminatory suspension or termination.

How has this affected workers, beyond the obvious harms of no longer having even a poverty-level income?

Many workers, and their families, are on the verge of starvation and homelessness as they have suddenly been left with no income, debt, and no social support. Healthcare or paying school fees for their children are luxuries when there is no money for food or rent. Many women workers find themselves at a loss to provide for their dependents and have had to consider other avenues of income, such as sex work. 

Migrant workers face the additional hardship of not knowing whether to stay and wait for reemployment, or return home and face the unemployment and hunger which made them migrate in the first place. 

What role are workers—and especially women—playing in the movement to reform the industry? 

Right now, workers are building power to organize to change these conditions but often face aggressive union-busting tactics. That said, there has been progress. About a year ago, for example, a groundswell of organizing by women workers around the world, in partnership with the International Labor Organization, adopted the International Labor Organization Violence and Harassment Convention and the International Labor Organization Recommendation 206, respectively, which articulate the rights of all workers to be free from harassment and violence in the workplace, particularly along gender lines.

Despite this success, COVID-19 has exacerbated the daily challenges garment workers already faced, outlined in this new report. However, workers, trade unions, and human rights organizations, have also been at the forefront of coping and rescuing their communities. Braving COVID infection and health hazards, they have hunted for donations, provided free food, fought landlords, and have succeeded in keeping homelessness at bay.

Can you tell me about Asia Floor Wage Alliance’s work on demanding a living wage?

Workers’ demands [PDF] in the short term are about survival, safety, and security. They include wage relief, continuing employment, income support, and health and safety. Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an Asia-led global labor alliance, has been working for over a decade on changing the industry, and securing a living wage is one piece. 

We are the first labor alliance to quantify a regional living wage for garment workers in Asia and to make a living wage a central issue for production workers and the industry. AFWA has demanded that supplier factories in production countries are responsible for national minimum wage, and brands, as drivers of the supply chain, need to pay for the gap between a living wage and the national minimum wage to workers in their factories. A big success over the past decade has been in building a global movement to convince brands that they are responsible to pay a living wage, but the next step is in pushing for implementation.

Asia Floor Wage Alliance is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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