Updated: Oct 19, 2021
More than six months have passed since the first time a lockdown was implemented in China due to the novel coronavirus. Numerous other countries followed in the footsteps of Chinese authorities after they placed Wuhan and the rest of the Hubei province under quarantine in late January. Since then, the number of coronavirus cases have increased exponentially, and economies throughout the world are suffering under lockdown. Employers have shed positions off payrolls, causing unemployment rates to spike and leaving workers flailing in a sea of uncertainty waiting for a possible severance.
COVID-19 immobilized the fashion industry as manufacturing hubs in apparel-producing countries around the world like China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, and Cambodia faced financial losses due to order cancellations. According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), as of Apr. 29, export cancellations or suspensions have cost $3.18 billion and 2.28 million workers have been affected.
Retailers like Urban Outfitters cancelled stock orders invoking the force majeure provision, which allowed them to withhold accepting goods on retail public orders (POs) after they were forced to close stores in Europe and the United States. In addition to being barraged with order cancellations and postponements, suppliers in apparel manufacturing countries faced “reduced order volumes and extended payment terms.” With only financial hardship and unprofitable stock left, suppliers were forced to furlough their factory workers without any sort of compensation, rendering them destitute.
Many garment workers live in countries where trade unions are banned, labour laws are not enforced and corruption is rampant therefore governments cannot be relied on to regulate companies and foreign investments. While there are countries like Pakistan and South Africa that have instituted measures to assist garment workers they are only short-term.
Migrant workers in the garment industry are especially vulnerable throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic downfall of the retail industry has exacerbated the labor rights violations and exploitation they already face. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, migrant workers in India, China, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore among other countries have lost their jobs and have no feasible way of returning to their home country.
The #PayUp Fashion Campaign is a union of labor rights groups and individual activists who aim to inform consumers about global brands that have cancelled orders and have not committed to pay in full for items that have been completed or those that are in production. The campaign encourages brands like Kohl’s, Bestseller, JCPenney, The Children’s Place, and Sears, which have not confirmed a commitment of payment according to the Worker Rights Consortium’s brand tracker, to #PayUp.
The campaign first emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building and the five garment factories it contained in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed 1,132 workers and injured 2,500 others. The incident followed the burning of the Tazreen Fashions factory in which “more than 100” workers lost their lives. #PayUp was used to demand fair compensation for the families of garment workers injured or deceased as people around the world became aware of the unsafe labor conditions present at Bangladeshi garment factories.
Penn State University research reports show that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, despite contractual obligations, buyers have cancelled orders from 45.8% of Bangladeshi suppliers and 72.1% of buyers have refused to pay for raw materials that were already purchased. Garment workers without unemployment insurance, savings, and welfare packages are left helpless.
Media attention to the issue grew after Remake, a non-profit group that aims to end fast fashion, released an article claiming that Kendall and Kylie Jenner’s brand Kendall + Kylie owned by Global Brands Group refused to pay for orders produced in February and March. Remake also exposed American rapper P. Diddy’s Sean Jean line owned by the same group as the Jenner’s brand. Moreover, the article shed light on the conditions of garment workers in Los Angeles who were in a vulnerable situation after brands like Ross and Fashion Nova refused to pay them even after Cardi B X Fashion Nova gave money to others affected by COVID-19.
The #PayUp campaign has encouraged Gap Inc. and Levi Strauss and Co. to join the list of brands who committed to pay in full for orders completed and in production. Levi Strauss and Co. issued a public statement in early July in which they committed to take “full responsibility – and full [payment] – for all finished, ready-to-ship orders and in-progress orders.” After initially cancelling orders and extending payment terms for some orders, Gap Inc. also decided to “honor its obligations to suppliers and workers” by committing to fulfill payments.
Market bag company Apolis was created with the idea that business has the power to create social change. Even though COVID-19 has slowed the brand’s wholesale business, CEO Shea Parton and the rest of the Apolis team have ensured that their workers are being paid. “What we’ve seen is that when business is done great you just give people ownership over their craft to determine their own future and you don’t need rules or incentives you just need great people that can build what we’ve ultimately seen in Bangladesh, which is certified fair trade wage and annual profit dividend and a retirement fund that is breaking the poverty cycle for hundreds of mothers that make our bag,” Parton said to Lenses in an interview.
Parton thinks that if a company finds themself in a situation that is out of their control, they should maintain constant communication and refrain from making false promises. “I think what a factory needs more than ever is certainty, but don’t create magical certainty like, ‘Oh guess what? We’re going to start selling more!’ [when] America starts going backwards on [re-]opening. I’m glad I didn’t make promises, we’ve been in the spot of underpromise and over performance in an effort to be long term minded.”
As a result of the decline of retail companies accelerating, garment workers are left abandoned. There are still 15 brands that have made no commitment to #PayUp, and while they may be facing financial losses due to COVID-19, their refusal to maintain communication with their manufacturers and garment workers about short and long-term plans in terms of payment shows their lack of responsibility toward people who helped them grow and acquire wealth.
Through Teen Lenses: How has the #PayUp movement influenced you as a consumer?
“In regard to the responsibility brands have towards their workers, I think they should hold the same standards that they do for their retail workers for the labor workers internationally. Garment workers deserve the same benefits that retail workers do not only because they are employed by the same company, but because in instances, they are working harder and in much worse conditions. Brands like HM would never take away pay from those employees in retail so i don’t understand why they think it’s acceptable to do so for garment workers. The movement overall has definitely influenced me as a consumer to shift my spending towards platforms like depop/poshmark where not only is clothing being sustainably recycled, but rights of employees/sellers are much more respected. I’m still going to try to avoid thrift stores because I recognize that thrift stores are places that some people entirely depend on and can only afford. I’d never want to take away from those places if I can afford to shop.” Fadilah Farrin, 18, Rising Freshman at Georgetown University, Olney, MD
“I honestly do not have enough information about the Pay Up movement specifically, however, I do think that brands have a responsibility to take care of their workers. Being informed that many of the brands I have purchased from do not pay their workers, I have boycotted many of them and do not purchase their goods. Fast fashion itself is a confusing topic for me, as I can’t really afford designer clothing, and at the same time, if I don’t buy from them, workers won’t be paid, but right now it looks like they aren’t getting paid anyway. I try to avoid supporting people like Kylie Jenner and buying her products and over purchasing goods from large chains that do not take care of their workers. Even if it is underpaying them and awful working conditions.” Tasnia Sadat, 19, Rising Sophomore at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Frederick, MD
“I’m still learning more about this issue but in general I’m appalled that influencers with tons of money are not paying their workers properly when that’s the necessary thing to do. Brands are required to treat their workers with basic human rights which is fair wages, respect, and decency. This has definitely impacted my actions as a consumer because I do not want to contribute to brands that exploit and take advantage of their workers. Though I generally stay away from fast fashion, moving forward I’ll definitely stay away from any brands that have shown that they are mistreating their workers.” Niyati Bantval, 17, Rising Senior at High School North, Plainsboro, NJ