Fashion brands should set a New Year’s resolution to put workers first

In April this year, 1020 workers at Hulu Garment in Cambodia were told that due a decline in orders during the Covid-19 pandemic, they would lose their jobs. This news was devastating for garment workers, who were already only paid a basic monthly wage of $192 per month, a wage that barely covered day-today living costs, let alone accumulating savings to tide them over during a crisis such as this.

In a further ruthless move, the factory owners asked workers to sign a document with their thumbprintsin order to receive their final wage payment, having hidden a statement within the text saying that the workers had voluntarily ‘resigned’.  This deceptive move enabled the factory to avoid paying $3.6 million in legally owed severance pay to the workers.

The plight of the Hulu Garment workers is just one example of how garment workers are at the sharp end of decisions made at the top of supply chains, when brands cancel orders, demandhefty discounts or delay payments throughout the pandemic. We estimate that garment workers are owed $12 billion in unpaid wages from the first 12 months of the pandemic alone, and at least half a billion dollars in legally owed severance.

The clothes that Hulu Garment workers stitched, were not destined for small struggling businesses. Purchasing brands included Amazon.  Amazon is one of the biggest companies in the world. It bought in $41 billion last year for clothing sales alone.Whilst the struggles of Amazon delivery, logistics and factory workers during the pandemic have been well documented, the company’s profits during the pandemic have soared by 220%.

The exploitation that enables companies like Amazon to generate such inflated profits is hiding in plain sight, in complex supply chains with unpaid workers at one end, and a CEO flying into space at the other.

After decades of deregulation and out-sourcing production, bands have successfully disengaged any form of responsibility for the workers who make their clothes. Yet it is the brands, as primary profit makers in the supply chain, that dictate the prices and timelines which ultimately squeeze labour costs and encourage sub-contracting and cutting corners on worker safety.

Workers, trade unions and labour rights groups recognise the pandemic as a critical turning point for the garment industry. We need to re-set this model that ruthlessly pursues profit, leaving devastation for workers and the environment in its wake. It is time for brands like Amazon to be held truly accountable for the conditions in its supply chain.

Big businesses like Amazon have a duty to lead the way. The systematic passing of the buck to the most vulnerable in global supply chains cannot be allowed to go on as usual. The pandemic has demonstrated that change is vital, and the winners of the pandemic, like Amazon, must be made to commit to rights, wages and social security.

Along with nearly 250 other labour rights groups and trade unions, we are calling on brands to sign an enforceable agreement on wages and severance, to ensure that workers will never again be left so vulnerable in a crisis. It would take no more than ten cents per t-shirt for apparel brands to ensure that garment workers, who have earned them billions in profits, receive the economic relief necessary to survive the crisis and strengthen unemployment protections for the future.

Our hope for 2022, is that this year is one of solidarity with workers in supply chains. We want this to be the year that consumers and activists amplify workers’ demands for brands do better. We want this to be the year that brands sign an enforceable agreement, which means that they no longer abide by human rights legislation through voluntary initiatives which are unenforceable and have failed to deliver change. All of us can be part of making this possible, so we want this to be the year of action.


Meg Lewis is Campaigns Director at Labour Behind the Label, an NGO that works to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry. The group is campaigning to ensure that brands take responsibility for workers in their supply chain, and is pushing for greater transparency, living wages and labour rights in the industry.” 

@labourlabel and @meg_lewis_