Why You Need to Know the Effects of COVID 19 on Refugee Garment Workers
The 2015 fashion documentary entitled “The True Cost” has uncovered a public secret that fashion has long avoided addressing; the exploitations of human labor in third world countries. It has also brought light to the secrets behind fast fashion's affordable and competitive prices. Now, with the increase of civil wars and intolerable living conditions, another vulnerable group of people is targeted by fashion brands for cheap labor and inhumane working conditions - refugees.
Refugees and The Increase in Recent Times
The history of refugees can be dated all the way back to the 17th century. But the first recorded refugee crisis was back in World War II. The war subsequently displaced around 50 million innocent citizens worldwide leaving them seeking a home. There can be many reasons for refugees. One of which is they come from a place of religious persecution. Therefore because of their beliefs are forced out of their homes.
Sexual orientation can be a huge issue in cultures causing those to flee if they do not fit into their traditional ideas. As well as this, the people of the poverty-stricken parts of the world are forced to flee to survive. It is literally life or death! In the African continent, there are around 17 million refugees reports The Guardian.
Civil wars and climate change have also forced terrible living conditions and doubled the number of refugees in the last decade. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 79.5 million people forcibly displaced at the end of 2019, with a staggering amount of 20.6 million refugees under the UNHCR mandate.
Seeking refuge in other countries is by no means an easy task. But driven from their homes and knowing only conflict, disaster, drought, lack of food, or grinding poverty, displacing is a considerable option.
How Does the Fashion Industry Exploits Refugees?
The already vulnerable refugees have to face brutal situations and conditions in order to get by. With no rights or voice, refugees make for easy targets for companies to profit with and the fashion industry is no exception. The little money earned forces the whole family to work including the children.
Fast fashion retailers are no strangers to coinciding news with sweatshop labor. In 2016, The Guardian investigated sweatshops and their conditions for their child staff. Focusing on a 13-year-old named Hamza who had been made homeless by the war when his father was beheaded by Isis soldiers. His family fled to Turkey where he worked in one of the many shoe sweatshops in the country for an average of 12 hours a day! Hamza, like many others, is forced to work for the sake of his family.
“I would love to go to school, I miss reading and writing. But if I go to school, nobody is going to bring food to my home.”
Only 1.04 million registered workers are in the regulated sector of the supply chain. Coming in super close is the number of unregistered workers who are thought to be Syrian refugees with 1 million workers, noted by the Ethical Trade Initiative. That is a tenth of the entire population in Greece!
While India is facing is on the verge of a refugee crisis, luxury fashion brands are still making deals with independent factories to make their garments or embroidery. With the harsh reality workers face, such as, inexistent health benefits, multiroom factory, caged windows, no emergency exit, earning a few dollars a day, and sleeping on the floors, a pact was made by prominent brands. The goal of the Utthan pact was to create more ethical and better working conditions. Big fashion houses and brands who are involved include, Kering (owner of labels including Gucci and Saint Laurent); LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (owner of Fendi and Christian Dior); and two British fashion houses, Burberry and Mulberry in 2016.
With its existence, journalists from The New York Times investigated the factories involved in the pact. Several visits and more than three dozen interviews with artisans, factory managers, and designers later, they found unregulated facilities, no employment benefits, and protection while workers would take thousands of hours of overtime coinciding with fashion weeks in Europe.
Unlike the current luxury brand initiative to include sustainable and ethical business practices, the pact was not publicized, kept secret and two signatories said a nondisclosure agreement was involved in the process. When asked, representatives of the fashion houses did not give a straight answer. It was not mentioned in their annual reports or corporate and social responsibility platforms and even discouraged auditors from speaking about it!
Refugees are desperate for better wages since they can barely make ends meet as and many of them also have debts to pay off to family members, recruitment agencies, labor brokers, or traffickers. Many are also often found to be paid less than local workers.
Ambiguity during COVID-19
COVID-19 has affected what normal is. We don’t go out without our masks and are generally cleaner than we were. Minor adaptive changes had to be made in order for us to continue our life.
The pandemic has also intensified the need for a more sustainable lifestyle.
The State of Fashion Report 2021 showed that consumers have shifted and are more inclined to take action and sometimes even boycott a brand that falls short on social justice. A report showed that 82% of consumers would stop or reduce their consumption from brands that mistreat their employees or suppliers.
The French Fashion Institute (IFM) also conducted a study in France, Germany, Italy, and the UK, indicating the effects of COVID-19 on consumer behaviors. The majority of consumers, accumulating an astounding percentage of 60%, will continue to pay close attention to labels and see where an item is manufactured.
It is no question that we, as consumers, demand transparency. But even with fashion brands receiving higher points in the Fashion Transparency Index report, what is the reality for third-party manufacturers and supply chains that employ refugee workers?
Fashion Revolution cited Bloomberg’s report that more than 1000 garment factories in Bangladesh have had canceled orders that sums up to a total worth roughly $ 1.5 billion due to the pandemic. It is also noted that suppliers handle payments after a brand makes an order and are paid weeks or months after delivery. In addition to this weirdly placed system, during the pandemic, fashion brands and retailers are found canceling their orders and not taking any responsibility. Factories are forced to destroy or keep hold of unwanted goods already made and lay off their workers.
Alongside the pandemic and the mistreatments, refugees go through heaps of unfair conditions. Those who work as garment workers are paid little to nothing. In response to the pandemic, they are answered with meager income that does not even cover basic human needs or worse, losing their jobs.
Those who are still working face dire working conditions, a room packed with more people than the advised health protocols, difficult access to water, and taking on debt just to buy essential foods.
Highlighted by the Clean Clothes Campaign, it is impossible for refugees to work legally due to strict asylum or immigration policies in the host countries. While legal workers often risk losing their legal status upon dismissal. They live in constant fear of arrest or deportation; many don’t even dare leave the factories or their dormitories.
In the BBC documentary on refugee garment workers, an undercover investigation got a quote from an anonymous worker, “If anything happens to a Syrian (refugee), they will throw him away like a piece of cloth.”
How Can I Help?
Boycotting brands is not a viable option. It will create ripples on the supply chain and thus affecting the workers. So, what course of action can we take?
There are numerous Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) that are driven to help garment workers around the world. Here are a few to get you inspired:
1. Fashion Revolution
A fashion activism movement founded in 2013 after the Rana Plaza disaster. Fashion Revolution aims to fight for a better future for the fashion industry and the world. Comprised of designers, academics, writers, business leaders, policymakers, brands, retailers, marketers, producers, makers, workers, and fashion lovers, Fashion Revolution is changing the industry from within.
You can help their movement by donating to their website. They also organize an annual event called Fashion Revolution Week to amplify the unheard voices of the fashion supply chain. You can help by sending an email to brands or share a tweet on Twitter. This year’s event will be held from the 19th until the 25th of April so don’t miss out on the chance! Click here to get involved!
2. Clean Clothes Campaign
Clean Clothes Campaign is a global network dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries. Since 1989, CCC has worked to ensure that the fundamental rights of workers are respected.
Stay informed of recent news and action requests by subscribing to their newsletter thread where they will update you six to eight times a year. You can download a handy list of questions to ask brands and or retailers provided on the website. It will help you know more about workers’ rights in the supply chain!
You can also donate and check the latest petitions and campaigns here!
3. Ethical Trading Initiative
To combat the vast and complex global supply chain, the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is here to help keep us informed on the most recent news. For buyers, designers, suppliers, and active young professionals, ETI provides workshops on how to conduct ethical practices.
They also provide a workshop built around ETI’s and United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) to provide professional skills and knowledge on human rights risks.
Check out their website to see more workshops and events series here!
Fashion constantly grows from one trend to another, but it should not outgrow being humane. We are all part of the fashion industry and we can make the much-needed change!