The Myth Of ‘Ethical’ Fashion: How A Multinational Clothing Brand Neglected Its Women Workers

The COVID-19 pandemic has been used as an excuse to hide anti-worker actions by apparel brands and their supplier factories.
The burden of the economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been passed down to the lowest level in the supply chain — like female workers in India’s garment industry. While brands washed their hands in innocence, supplier factories have pushed back against unionised workers in particular.
The burden of the economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been passed down to the lowest level in the supply chain — like female workers in India’s garment industry. While brands washed their hands in innocence, supplier factories have pushed back against unionised workers in particular.

“Where are you hiding, H&M?… If you don’t come out and stand with us now, it means you are complicit in union busting and closure of the company. Your profits are made on the sweat of our labour…Please ask Gokaldas to reopen the factory.“

On 7, July 2020 Shobha, a laid-off worker at the Gokaldas Exports-owned Euro Clothing Company-2 (ECC-2) factory recorded a video where she made this appeal. The video was part of an international campaign undertaken by her union —the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU)— demanding that H&M, the only buyer at the factory, respect its commitments to protecting workers’ rights.

When Shobha’s video was released on social media, it had already been a month since workers began their protest against the sudden and illegal layoff announced at the ECC-2 unit by Gokaldas Exports. Workers were under immense pressure. The company had been using illegal and coercive methods to force workers to resign. Mounting uncertainty over whether the factory will actually reopen were undermining workers’ resolve to hold out against the company. The near-total absence of income during the COVID-19 pandemic had severely affected garment workers’ households. Everyone was desperate for some income that would meet expenses and pay off debts.

Apathetic to these pressing worries, H&M—an international apparel brand for which Shobha and 1300 other workers had been working for years—refused to intervene in the industrial dispute. It dismissed Gokaldas Exports’ claim that orders from H&M had considerably reduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic; instead it claimed that orders to Gokaldas Exports were at the same level as the previous year. Important to note that there exists no mechanism through which these claims by both companies can be verified. Initially, H&M declared the dispute a result of ‘differing interpretations of the national law’ between GATWU and Gokaldas Exports. On its part, H&M said it was ‘facilitating’ meetings with the disputing entities to resolve the situation.

This statement would give the impression that H&M was acting over and above what it needed to actually do, as a sort of favour to workers.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Violating its Commitment to Protecting Workers’ Rights

On its website, H&M has a section titled ‘Responsible Purchasing Practices’ in which it affirms its commitment towards ‘safeguarding the fair treatment of garment workers and to provide a healthy work environment’. H&M also showcases the fact that it is a ‘founding member’ of ACT (Action, Collaboration and Transformation) and that along with 20 other brands, it has signed an agreement with IndustriALL, a global union. The agreement aims to “transform the garment, textile and footwear industry and achieve living wages for workers through collective bargaining at industry level linked to purchasing practices.“

This formed the basis for an individual agreement, called the Global Framework Agreement (GFA), between H&M and IndustriALL. In the GFA, H&M committed itself to ‘actively’ using “all its possible leverage to ensure that its direct suppliers and their subcontractors producing merchandise/ready made goods sold throughout H&M’s retail operations respect human and trade union rights in its workplace.“

In her video, Shobha and GATWU were asking that H&M stand up to this commitment. Gokaldas Exports had taken an arbitrary decision to shut down the only factory that had a unionised workforce. The other factories of the company—where H&M apparels were being manufactured and where there was no workers’ union—had been left untouched.

GATWU’s campaign in international forums has focussed on getting H&M to accept its responsibility towards workers. It has done so by trying to activate the dispute resolution mechanism—the National Monitoring Committee (NMC)—that H&M set up to resolve industrial disputes in its supplier factories.

A day after Shobha’s videos hit the internet, H&M finally called for the first NMC meeting, a month after protests had begun. GATWU president R. Prathibha told us that in meetings and communications, H&M has claimed that it was only a ‘facilitator’, that it had no control over which unit Gokaldas Exports assigns H&M’s orders to; and that its power was limited only to certifying the company’s units as eligible for producing its orders and nothing more. Despite evidence of Gokaldas Exports’ violations of workers’ rights and the coercive methods through which it was gathering workers’ resignations, H&M refused to condemn and prevail over its supplier factory to respect workers’ rights.

The hollowness of H&M’s commitment to the tripartite mechanism (i.e. the NMC) was evident in that the next meeting of the NMC took place on August 6, 2020, two months after the protest began. By then, most workers had resigned and the rest had taken a transfer to another factory of Gokaldas Exports in Mysore. Through its inaction, H&M had ensured that Gokaldas Exports achieves its objective of closing the factory by getting workers to tender their resignations. It was only because of sustained resistance, led by GATWU, that workers at least managed to get higher compensation packages than their colleagues who resigned during the course of the protest.

Uncaring, Irresponsible and Profit-Hungry: Apparel Brands During the Pandemic

H&M’s conduct through this episode is not exceptional. Several reports by international watchdog organisations have pointed to how apparel brands have been acting to limit their obligations to contracted factories. Since factories cannot afford to sue brands without adverse consequences, the burden of the economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been passed down to the lowest level in the supply chain — women workers.

A report by the Workers Rights Consortium calls on brands to share the financial burden of the crisis generated by the pandemic, “rather than sloughing all costs onto suppliers and, in turn, workers.” The pandemic has also been used by supplier factories in south and south-east Asia to target unionised workers disproportionately, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has stated in its report. Pertinently, BHRRC found that international brands which source from these factories had failed to resolve these matters despite their public commitment to protecting workers’ freedom of association.

These anti-worker actions of apparel brands and their supplier factories, using COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse, is possible because of poor regulatory structures. Supplier factories typically work in countries or regions where state oversight of labour regulations is abysmal, if not non-existent. Apparel brands have no regulatory oversight for their conduct in countries where their products are being manufactured, except for the highly-advertised, voluntary commitments they make towards protecting workers’ rights.

But, as H&M’s conduct at the ECC-2 factory shows, brands can shirk when it suits them. Based on mounting evidence that these forms of multi-stakeholder initiatives—such as the GFA between H&M and Gokaldas—have failed, a report by MSI Integrity states, “MSIs are not effective tools for holding corporations accountable for abuses, protecting rights holders against human rights violations, or providing survivors and victims with access to remedy.”

Meanwhile, in response to international pressure generated by GATWU’s campaign, H&M belatedly announced that it would consider withdrawing from its business relationship with Gokaldas Exports over the next 18 months.

This response made no difference to Shobha who had given in her resignation. It is also not difficult to predict that if H&M withdrew, it would only result in the loss of more jobs for women workers during a pandemic. H&M’s announcement, it is clear, is for its consumers in the Global North rather than for the minimum-wage women workers manufacturing its clothes.

Swathi Shivanand is a research consultant at ALF. She has a doctorate in Modern History from JNU and her interests are in areas of urban, region, labour and gender. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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Swathi Shivanand
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