#GreatRevaluation: Justice all down the chain

Following our call for a great revaluation in the previous post, Maurice highlights one area where such action is urgently needed: clothing supply chains

We need to revalue the contribution of those currently risking everything to keep us safe and well in these precarious times. But it is worth remembering that, for some people upon whom we depend in order to enjoy our way of living, times have long been precarious.

I have written before about those who make our clothes, workers in the supply chains of shops here in our towns, people who have, literally, given us the shirts on our backs through their hard, often ill-paid and dangerous labour. See this piece on the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, for instance (the seventh anniversary of which is rapidly approaching, by the way).

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting them too. The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an alliance of labour unions and NGOs, has warned that a number of big UK and EU High Street brands are responding to the current crisis by cancelling orders placed with clothing producers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and other countries in the global South.

The organisation says the Arcadia Group, “which owns brands including Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge, is estimated to have cancelled in excess of £100m of existing clothing orders worldwide from suppliers in some of the world’s poorest countries as the global garment sector faces ruin”.

Many of these orders were placed before the COVID-19 crisis reached its peak. In some cases, companies are issuing cancellation threats even where production of the items was already under way – that is, after the manufacturers had made major investments in materials for the job – or even completed, but not yet shipped.

One CEO of a well-known store reminded suppliers that his company had the legal right to cancel contracts ‘at any stage’, and then demanded discounts of up to 30 percent on goods in transit since 17 March.  “If you do not wish to accept the proposal” he added, “the order will be cancelled.”

Garment workers in the global south, already hard pressed at the best of times, are now facing a potentially devastating loss of jobs and income.

The Indonesian government estimates that up to 4 million Indonesians could fall into poverty and about 5 million could become unemployed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, as Yang Sophron, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, has said, Cambodia’s garment factories, “with cramped and closed-air conditions and workers passing clothes down production lines, share all the conditions for the virus to spread”.

Faced with this crisis, some companies have already stopped wages. CCC reports that workers in Bangladesh have protested for days in the streets, “demanding payment of wages for March, and protesting termination and layoffs of workers.

The state minister for labour warned that stern legal action would be taken against the factory owners who fail to pay workers before 16 April (today). But some of the workers have already been out of work since February and have not received wages since then.

Moreover, threatening the factory owners in the global south with stern action is not much use unless our companies in the north pay for work already undertaken.

If corporate social responsibility is to mean anything more than an empty slogan, we need to insist that our companies uphold workers’ rights. And if we expect to enjoy rights here in the global north, we have a responsibility to ensure they extend all the way down the supply chain, without which we could not enjoy the goods upon which our way of life is based – such as the very clothes on our backs.

To find out more and support the campaign, visit cleanclothes.org, or follow them on social media, @cleanclothes

Maurice Macartney

16 April 2020