For nearly a year, A-ya spent up to 10 hours a day at Trax Apparel in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where she stitched sportswear for brands such as Adidas for $300 a month. Soon after Covid-19 hit the shores of the Southeast Asian country, the company’s once-humming production lines suddenly ground to a halt. In April 2020, she was sent home. Two months after she was furloughed, A-ya was dismissed.
A-ya, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, received her final wages plus $80 in suspension support from the Cambodian government — but not the severance payment she was legally owed. Without savings to help cushion the fall, she has bounced from temp position to temp position, unable to send money to her family and barely making ends meet herself.
“I’ve had to reduce my food expenses and cut down on electricity use,” A-ya says through a translator, adding that she regularly misses meals and goes hungry. “I eat only rice with a little bit of other food, but no sweets or fruit.” Her elderly parents, who rely on her for support, now skip breakfast, eat less for lunch, and frequently forgo meat.
More than 10,000 miles away in Haiti, Marline has struggled to feed her three children, the youngest of whom is 2, since last summer, when she was fired from Sewing International (a clothing producer for brands such as Gildan) after protesting what she described as employer wage theft. The pandemic had already hit the Caribbean in full force by then, and Marline, whose last name is also being withheld for privacy reasons, saw her monthly salary plunge from 15,000 Haitian gourdes (around $205 in US dollars) to 5,000 gourdes ($68 USD) as the factory sharply curtailed work hours due to slashed orders.
Marline hasn’t been able to find another job, and she’s already burned through what little savings and government assistance she had. Milk is now a luxury, and meat and fish have proven challenging to procure. “We are living day to day to survive,” she says.
The garment industry employs 40 million people worldwide — 60 percent of whom are in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the International Labour Organization — and yet A-ya and Marline’s stories are far from unique. Though the pandemic has upended the fashion industry, it’s the workers who can least afford it who are bearing the brunt of the pain that began nearly a year ago, when the Covid-19 outbreak was first declared a pandemic and Western retailers suddenly pumped the brakes on thousands of in-progress or finished orders. The preemptive cost-cutting move, though ethically murky, was perfectly legal due to a “force majeure” contract clause that let brands skirt any liability: The pandemic was tantamount to an “act of God” and, therefore, beyond their control.
Oh, well, beyond their control eh?
Kohl’s, one of the deadbeat buyers on the WRC’s “naughty list,” canceled millions of dollars worth of garment orders from Bangladesh and South Korea in mid-March yet was able to fork over $109 million in dividends to shareholders the following month. In the meantime, Nova says, garment workers, whose livelihoods were already precarious, are facing starvation and destitution with even less recourse than before.
Huh, funny how that works.
And yet the contrast between brand balance sheets and the workers whose labor underpins them remains painfully stark. A survey of 50 leading apparel brands, published in November by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), a London nonprofit, found that 29 companies have remained profitable, yet nine of those have still not yet committed to paying for suspended or canceled orders. Just one company — PVH Corp., which operates Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger — had persuaded its suppliers to institute a “pandemic policy” to ensure vulnerable workers such as pregnant women and union members are not being disproportionately targeted for layoffs, though several brands said they had a preexisting policy that covered this.
Only three — Aldi Nord, Aldi Sud, and Lidl, all supermarkets that happen to sell clothes — made it a new policy not to ask factories for price reductions or discounts on similar items commissioned during the previous season. In other words, brands are now paying less for the same items of clothing than they did before the pandemic, even though the margins were already razor thin. (Some brands, like Levi’s, have refuted this, however, with a spokesperson from the denim giant noting in an email that the way it determines the cost of products with its suppliers “has not changed.”)
You know, none of this has to be this way. But we have a system of fast fashion that creates enormous hardships on workers when times are good. And when times are bad, it is even worse. Moreover, this is the exact same system, with shockingly few minor differences, as the system that existed in 1911 and led to the Triangle Fire.
Of course, we could care enough about these workers to demand that companies act differently and create laws to ensure they do. But we basically don’t give a damn about these people. After all, they are over there.