GARRETT D. BROWN, MPH, CIH, FAIHA, is affiliate faculty at the University of California at Berkeley School of Public Health and coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of AIHA or The Synergist.
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Improving Post-COVID Working Conditions in Global Garment Factories
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated the unsafe, illegal, and hazardous working conditions faced by more than 60 million garment workers toiling in supply chain factories around the world. According to a 2021 report by the human rights organization ActionAid Australia, low wages, long hours, unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and gender-based violence and harassment became even more pronounced as international clothing brands took advantage of the global crisis to reduce their production costs and increase their profits.
To regain lost ground and achieve sustainable progress in improving working conditions in garment factories, international brands, local factory owners, and governments in the producing countries must adopt different purchasing practices, end the charade of corrupt, ineffective factory audits, and promulgate—and actually enforce—worker-protective laws and regulations. Genuine improvement in the lives of garment workers requires that the underlying causes that turn factories into sweatshops must be recognized, addressed, and altered. This requires a new business model for supply chains, transparency and accountability in monitoring working conditions, and meaningful participation by workers in health and safety programs at the factory level. Real change in global supply chain factories requires action in the following areas:
•improving occupational health and safety, including complementing national regulatory enforcement with the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry (PDF) •replacing the failed corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes with the approach, transparency, and accountability of worker-driven social responsibility programs •ending the practice of wage theft by employers and brands, and establishing a genuine living wage for garment workers •ending gender-based violence and harassment, and implementing as a starting point the International Labor Organization’s Convention 190 •respecting workers’ basic, internationally recognized labor rights, including the right to form a union and bargain collectively •adopting the open accountability approach and requirements of a strong human rights due diligence framework, which is under consideration by the European Union and has been enacted already by some member states
WORKPLACE HEALTH AND SAFETY Significant improvements in garment worker health and safety were achieved during the eight-year term (2013–2021) of the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety. Now called the International Accord, the program is continuing in Bangladesh and is slated to expand to other garment-producing countries. When implemented in coordination with effective enforcement of national laws and regulations, the International Accord could substantially improve worker safety in the post-COVID era.
Genuine improvement in the lives of garment workers requires that the underlying causes that turn factories into sweatshops must be recognized, addressed, and altered.
WORKER-DRIVEN SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY The voluntary self-regulation of CSR, as applied to global supply chains like those in the apparel industry, has generated positive publicity for the brands. But organizations such as Better Buying and Greenpeace have found that actual working conditions for millions of women garment workers at the factory level remain unsafe, unhealthy, and illegal. The dominant “sweatshop business model” designed and implemented by international clothing brands illustrates the failures of CSR. Workers’ rights organizations have shown that the ineffective and corrupt “CSR monitoring” or “social auditing” does not capture even hazards in plain view, let alone the underlying causes of unsafe and illegal conditions. CSR has also failed because there has been no meaningful, genuine participation by workers themselves. Fortunately, an alternative that prioritizes the participation of workers, transparency, and accountability is gaining ground in global supply chains as “worker-driven social responsibility” (WSR). As explained by the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network, the approach and core activities of WSR are transferable to many supply chains in the global economy as well as the apparel industry.
ENDING WAGE THEFT During the pandemic, garment workers throughout the world lost millions of dollars in wages that were never paid to suppliers by the international brands and from government relief funds that were never paid to workers by factory owners. An international campaign to “name and shame” those brands and employers has highlighted a relentless battle to claw back these wages, an effort that must continue in the post-COVID world. But several organizations have shown that even before COVID, garment workers’ wages frequently violated national minimum wage laws and were as much as 45 percent below what is actually needed to meet basic needs, the internationally-recognized “living wage.” The post-COVID world for garment workers must include payment of back wages and a genuine living wage.
ENDING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE For decades, garment workers—the majority of whom are women—have been subjected to horrifying levels of gender-based violence, including harassment, assault, and rape. According to a report published by Open Democracy, this violence only increased during the pandemic to epidemic levels of its own. A key starting point for reducing violence against women is ratification and implementation of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 190, which went into effect in June 2021 but has been ratified by only ten countries. Effective anti-violence efforts require promoting and protecting women’s participation and leadership on the factory floor, in their unions and community organizations, and in society at large, as called for by Convention 190 and explained in a report by the organization Global Labor Justice. HUMAN RIGHTS DUE DILIGENCE The decades-long record of the apparel industry violating the human rights of its workforce—including systematic violations of freedom of association, wage and hour, health and safety, and non-discrimination laws as well as environmental protections—has sparked legislation to require multinational corporations to conduct human rights due diligence (HRDD) evaluations of the impact of their operations worldwide. This requires actively identifying and assessing actual and potential impacts on people and nature; taking corrective action to eliminate these impacts; tracking the effectiveness of corrective actions; and communicating the results to all stakeholders, including workers and their communities. As with all legislation, the devil is in the details, and a wide-ranging debate is under way to define exactly how comprehensive, how binding, how transparent, and how effective the HRDD laws will be. If broadly defined and effectively enforced, HRDD laws could play an important role in improving working conditions in numerous global supply chains. The pandemic has been a catastrophe for women garment workers in terms of their and their family’s health, their working conditions on the job, and their living conditions in the community. If the post-pandemic era for all global supply chain workers is to be different, then substantial changes must be made in the business model of multinational corporations, the failed CSR model must be replaced with the approach and activities of WSR efforts, national and international laws and standards must actually be enforced, and workers themselves must play a central role in creating safe, healthful, and respectful workplaces.
ActionAid Australia: “Casualties of Fashion: How Garment Workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia Are Wearing the Cost of COVID-19” (PDF, December 2021).
Better Buying: “Better Buying Partnership Index Report, 2022” (PDF, February 2022).
Business & Human Rights Resource Centre: “Unbearable Harassment: The Fashion Industry and Widespread Abuse of Female Garment Workers in Indian Factories” (April 2022).
Business Fights Poverty: “The Case for Living Wages: How Paying Living Wages Improves Business Performance and Tackles Poverty” (May 2022).
Ethical Trading Initiative: “Aligning and Driving Action on ‘Responsible Purchasing Practices’” (July 2022).
Fashion Revolution: “Fashion Transparency Index: 2022 Edition” (July 2022).
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung: “Supply Chain Governance: Arguments for Worker-Driven Enforcement” (PDF, July 2022).
Global Labor Justice: “Advancing Gender Justice on Asian Fast Fashion Supply Chains Post COVID-19” (PDF, June 2020).
Greenpeace: “Self Regulation: A Fashion Fairytale” (November 2021).
International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry.
International Labor Organization: “Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190)” (June 2021).
Open Democracy: “Violence Against Women Garment Workers Increased During Pandemic” (February 2022).
Pay Your Workers.
RTE Radio: “Can a New Campaign Help Garment Makers to Be Paid Fairly?” (July 2022).
Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network: “Statement of Principles” (2022).