The fashion industry consists of several stakeholders that exist in multiple dimensions of the supply chain. Fashion brands, contractors, designers, producers, garment workers – are some of those stakeholders. At the very bottom of the supply chain lie the Garment workers. More than 75 million workers worldwide are employed in fashion industries across the globe. The issue of exploitation of garment workers transcends geographical boundaries and is prevalent in several countries.
India, for example, is the 6th largest exporter of textiles and apparel in the world. Developing countries like India are an important part of the supply chains of some of the most famous fast fashion brands. Brands such as Zara, or H&M outsource their production to a contractor in these countries. Such a contractor further subcontracts to another agency, which hires garment workers and performs the part of the contract that was originally made between the brand and the contractor. A definite consequence of this is mismanagement in the supply chain. In such cases, there exists no direct link between the brands and the garment workers. As a result, workers at such production units are exploited, owing to the informal employment arrangements.
Though the principal employees, i.e. the brands, are theoretically responsible for ensuring safe working conditions for the workers; not much of it is done in practice.
It is imperative for countries to protect the rights of the workers by means of an established legal framework. With respect to Indian legislations, The Code on Wages 2019 includes four important legislations like the Minimum Wages Act 1948; the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2020 which includes thirteen labour laws relating to safety, health, and working conditions like Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970; Code on Social Security 2020 that includes nine acts and lastly, the Industrial Relations Code 2020 including three labour laws relating to industrial relations.
Out of these, the Act that is applied in such a scenario is the ‘The Contract Labour Regulation and Abolition Act 1970’, where workmen employed as “contract labour” by or through a contractor, with or without the knowledge of the principal employer are protected. The Act holds the employer responsible for the organisation of the work setup. It demands mandatory registration of relevant establishments and makes the principal employers liable to provide amenities such as canteens, restrooms, and safe drinking water for the welfare and health of contract labourers employed by them.
In addition to this, there are penal consequences under the Act, including imprisonment for up to 3 months and fine of up to one hundred rupees for every day of contravention continued after conviction for the first such contravention.
Los Angeles too doesn’t fall behind when it comes to exploitation of garment workers. Most of the fashion industry’s production is outsourced overseas to countries like India or Bangladesh, where lax labour laws contribute to the abuse of workers. But there are also about 45,000 workers in the local factories in LA, many of whom are immigrant women-who too, like their Asian counterparts, barely earn a living wage.
On September 27, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Senate Bill 62, known as the Garment Worker Protection Act. This comes after the ongoing Pandemic put thousands of garment workers in economic and health crises. The Act is intended to result in fair wages and improved working conditions for garment workers. The Act prohibits piecework pay, meaning, it prohibits paying workers engaged in garment manufacturing by the piece or unit. Instead, they will be be paid an hourly rate not less than the applicable minimum wage, which in California is currently $14 at the state level. Another provision of the Act being the joint and several liability for unpaid wages for “brand guarantors,” along with manufacturers and contractors. Historically, fashion brands have been getting away by not being held liable for the workers’s improper treatment and pay. The legislation, if implemented effectively, could be a blueprint for fashion production in the United States.
Apart from countries and their legislations, certain international codes of conduct also act as mechanisms to bridge the gap between brands and their employees (garment workers) and make the supply chain cleaner, ethical and transparent.
The eight fundamental International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions are primarily for the protection of workers and their rights. They are : C029-Forced Labour Convention; C087 – Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention; C098 – Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention; C100 – Equal Remuneration Convention; C105 – Abolition of Forced Labour Convention; .C111 – Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention; C138 – Minimum Age Convention; C182 – Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention.
These conventions are binding upon only the states that have ratified them. However, these International Labour standards are backed by supervisory systems that make sure the members implement the conventions. ILO’s ‘Regular Supervisory Mechanism’ ensures that states submit regular reports on their compliance with the conventions. Under the procedure of ‘Representations’;employees and workers’ organisations may also file complaints against states .
In recent news, more than 20,000 garment workers in Lao PDR benefitted from income support and occupational safety and health measures taken by the German government and the ILO . This exemplifies the efforts that ILO, among other international organisations, takes to protect the garment workers of the world – especially the developing Asian countries that host the maximum number of unpaid and ill-treated workers.
Human Rights Treaties:
There are four international human rights treaties with importance for workers’ rights: –
– ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)
– ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)
– CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child)
– CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination Against Women)
Only the countries that have ratified to the treaties are bound by them. But, there is no mechanism for enforcement unless the state has also ratified the optional protocol to the respective treaty, using which individuals can invoke their human rights.
The most prominent issues faced by garment workers are forced labour, women’s rights, child labour, unreasonable working hours, unsafe working conditions, discrimination, lack freedom of association, and lack of basic minimum wages. As common these problems are in the developing Asian countries, the condition of garment workers in developed countries like USA too is saddening. Legislations of different countries are but a mere attempt at improving the lives of the workers. The plight of garment workers is an International human rights violation issue that needs not only theoretical legislations but also effective implementation.
Author: Garima Ranka
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