The challenge for workers

When it comes to working out whether a job in the fashion industry is a source of economic dignity or exploitation, the conditions experienced by garment workers in the workplace is a crucial factor.

Fashion companies have an obligation to ensure that workers throughout their supply chain are safe and treated well. Ensuring that workers’ rights and safety are respected is a significant part of the research that Tearfund normally does for the Ethical Fashion Report. In fact, two large sections of our research are dedicated to this space.

When the fashion industry is working normally, a fashion company will develop policies that set out what standards they expect suppliers through their supply chain to adhere to. These policies are shared with suppliers, who commit to operating at the standard the company expects. Companies then use a tool called social auditing to check that suppliers are upholding the standards as promised. Even with these checks and balances in place and working well, workers’ rights and safety are all too often abused by a global fashion system that is not designed to prioritise their needs.

In 2020, abuses of workers’ rights and safety have been made a whole lot worse by the health risks of Covid-19. In countries with high rates of the virus, the factory workplace has been a high-risk environment for exposure and potential infection. While factories were closed in many countries during the initial stages of lockdown, many of these restrictions were later wound back, often before it was safe to do so. Some companies even continued to operate throughout the lockdowns. Workers in these factories were faced with the difficult choice of risking falling into poverty by not working to protect their health, or risking infection by returning to work in order to put a roof over the heads of their loved ones.

On the job, factory and machine layouts can make it really hard for workers to follow social distancing guidelines. To make things worse, PPE often isn’t available. If a garment worker lives in housing provided by their employer, it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll be able to social distance there. On-site, dormitory-style housing is about getting as many people as possible into one room.

Unfortunately, travel and other lockdown restrictions have made it extremely difficult for companies to monitor what’s happening in their supply chains through normal auditing and factory inspections. These limitations have reduced suppliers’ accountability for maintaining safe and non-exploitative working conditions in their facilities, at the very time when they are under the greatest pressure to cut corners.

Industry response

Active communication with suppliers is key in keeping garment workers safe in their workplaces. Companies have to make sure that everyone in their supply chain understands their expectations of workplace and labour conditions, and they have to make sure that workers are also trained to make these expectations tangible. For this Commitment, we looked at which companies had kept up communications with suppliers and kept auditing going in some form.

56% of companies demonstrated ongoing communications with suppliers

52% of companies continued auditing throughout the pandemic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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