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April 22, 2020

Labour rights groups set priorities to protect garment workers

A coalition of groups helping around 2,000 apparel brands and retailers to improve labour conditions in garment factories around the world is calling for urgent action during the Covid-19 crisis to safeguard worker income and health and future-proof supply chains.

By Beth Wright

A coalition of groups helping around 2,000 apparel brands and retailers to improve labour conditions in garment factories around the world is calling for urgent action during the Covid-19 crisis to safeguard worker income and health and future-proof supply chains.

The ten-strong group – which includes Amfori, Better Buying, Fair Labor Association, Fair Wear Foundation, ETI Norway and ETI UK, IDH, the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, Solidaridad and the IRBC Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile – has agreed a shared vision on social protection and responsible business conduct during the pandemic.

Its initial focus is on the current crisis and early recovery phase of the pandemic, and calls for action from governments and multilateral institutions, as well as providing practical guidance on how brands can respect the rights and livelihoods of workers. It is working on additional guidance concerning the recovery phase and post-Covid-19 period.

“Covid-19 has had a devastating global impact on the garment industry. Most factory workers do not earn enough to take care of themselves and their families and lack any kind of safety net to get them through this crisis,” the coalition says. 

The two priorities that “urgently need attention” are safeguarding worker income and health, and future-proofing supply chains.

Protecting worker income and health “The impact of Covid-19 has magnified existing inequalities, systemic vulnerabilities, and challenges in global garment supply chains. The health and livelihoods of millions of garment workers and their families – who often cannot rely on savings, loans, or public safety nets – are at risk. The majority of garment workers are women, often concentrated in low-pay, low-power positions, underrepresented in unions, and with additional unpaid child, elderly and sick care duties. Covid-19 has put them at a particular risk, not only for their immediate health but also for their immediate and long-term financial situation.”

The coalition urges brands, retailers, suppliers, governments, trade unions, industry associations, civil society, and multilateral organisations to work together to enable factories to maintain employment relationships and make changes in the workplace in order to protect the health of garment workers.

It adds factories must ensure on-time payment of salaries to workers who remain actively employed. If facilities have to close temporarily, it should be a top priority of all stakeholders to support workers directly or in accessing finances to bridge this period that they cannot work. When worker retrenchment cannot be avoided due to long-term factory closure or bankruptcy, all workers should receive their full legal entitlements, including wages, benefits, and severance pay.

Future-proofing supply chains “Covid-19 has massively disrupted the current way of doing business. While the immediate effects of the crisis have been severe, the situation offers a unique opportunity to rebuild structures in a more sustainable and fair way.”

The group says a key point of attention will be building functioning social protection floors for workers, including unemployment benefits. It adds fair and collaborative relationships between retailers, brands, and suppliers, as well as prices that cover the cost of responsible production, should form the foundation of future global supply chains.

“We look forward to the results of the dialogue among global social partners which will likely set out priorities and commitments for joint industry action to respond to the pandemic. We plan to align each other and other key stakeholders to implement these two priorities,” it notes.

Call on governments and multilateral institutions

Meanwhile, the coalition is calling on governments and multilateral institutions to help provide instant relief for international supply chains.

“Governments of garment-producing countries certainly have a duty to protect and care for their citizens. We also call upon governments of countries where the head offices of our member brands and retailers are based to take into consideration the impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak throughout global supply chains. We call upon our governments to coordinate with multilateral institutions to provide relief funds directly to garment workers and prioritise employment when providing relief to companies.”

The crisis demonstrates the need for long-term, sector-wide improvements securing social protection floors for workers in sourcing countries, it adds.

The group urges the extension of social protection for workers and employers in the garment industry, consistent with ILO standards including health and sickness benefits, unemployment, employment injury, and medical insurance, involving trade unions and industry associations in the process.

“To ensure the long-term sustainability of garment supply chains, we call on governments to financially support a collaborative, coordinated approach to create and strengthen these social protection floors in producing countries.”

Call on brands and retailers 

The organisations say while they understand brands and retailers are facing “extremely difficult times” and are focused on keeping their businesses afloat, they must continue to uphold principles of responsible business conduct despite these challenging circumstances. This includes understanding how their decisions during the crisis will impact workers in their supply chain, and doing everything they can to mitigate negative impacts.

It also calls on them to communicate transparently about the measures they are taking to ensure accountability and peer learning, and outlines a series of key responsible practices during the crisis and initial recovery phase:

Responsible sourcing decisions

  • Maintain frequent and transparent dialogue with all supply chain partners on sourcing decisions and look for collaborative solutions. No unilateral decisions should be taken.
  • Retailers and brands are expected to honour their obligations and pay in full for orders completed or in progress.
  • If orders cannot be completed, retailers and brands are expected to prioritise covering labour costs, as well as materials or other costs that have already been incurred.
  • Companies are expected to work hard to minimise the ongoing impact upon workers who will already be facing difficult circumstances. 
  • Collaborate with suppliers on orders for upcoming months to identify alternatives to cancelling orders and treat order cancellations as a last resort.
  • Anticipate changes or delays in production and be flexible about delivery dates, payment terms, and financial liability.
  • Do not terminate the business relationship with suppliers without first having discussed scenarios and solutions with them. If exit is unavoidable ensure that workers are protected and paid.
  • Work closely with suppliers including raw material suppliers to collaboratively plan and secure capacity needed and provide updated forecasts.

Safeguarding factory working conditions

  • Listen to the voices of workers through their trade unions, social dialogue mechanisms or elected worker representatives.
  • Make sure safety measures to contain the risk of infection are implemented at the work floor. Workers should be informed about their rights and provided correct information on preventive safety measures.
  • Factories should have a mechanism in place to address questions from workers and involve them in decision making. Workers must have access to a trade union or other worker representation to collectively respond to measures or to raise issues. Workers should have access to a channel to support remedy of problems related to their rights. Grievance channels should be accessible to workers even if factories have closed, or the workers have been retrenched.
  • Workers should have access to safe transportation to the factory.

Click here to see further just-style coverage of how the outbreak of Covid-19 is impacting the global clothing industry.

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