Paris, France — The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immense impact on the world. The fashion industry, together with millions of workers within it, has been one of the most affected sectors. At the beginning of the pandemic, the exploitation, greenwashing and race washing practiced in the garment sector was exposed on a much wider scale. This is one of the reasons for the Remember Who Made Them campaign. With the willingness to openly discuss systemic failings perpetuating injustice within the fashion industry and give a voice to the concerned workers, the all-women-led movement is here to spread awareness. The movement speaks about the existing inequalities within the garment industry. It also celebrates the high-cost labor that goes into making the clothes we wear.
It is fair to say that worker exploitation has been a fundamental part of the fashion industry’s business model. Although fashion is one of the most profitable professional sectors, its main driving force is the workers producing all the garments, 80% of whom are women of color. These workers lack basic rights, fair pay and recognition for their labor.
Despite the industry being worth as much as $3 trillion, an average garment worker earns about $96 per month. Needless to say, the business model the fashion industry has created and been exercising for years benefits from both the production of the goods and their sales rather than the latter alone. A system profiting off of the people who make the clothes is the bloodline of the industry.
Garment Workers’ Rights Neglected Amid the Pandemic
The situation became even more disturbing with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the economic decline across all sectors, garment sectors put into place more severe cost-cutting measures. Retailers decreased or canceled their orders, limited the workforce and refused to pay for the work done before the outbreak. This left millions of garment workers with heavily reduced working hours, unpaid salaries or even unemployment.
The COVID-19 outbreak also revealed a great imbalance between suppliers and buyers. Those producing the actual garments are at the bottom of the supply chain. The system has operated on the “produce first, pay second” basis for years. Suppliers, usually based in low-income countries, produce vast amounts of garments daily. However, they have to wait weeks, sometimes not months, until they receive remuneration from buyers and retailers.
The Center for Global Workers’ Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium conducted research with PennState University. Together they found that since the start of the pandemic, retail companies have held up at least $16.2 billion for canceled orders. This research exposed companies for not paying their garment workers for already produced orders. Some of them include “Walmart, Urban Outfitters, Topshop, Primark, Forever 21, Free People, Nike and Adidas.”
Remember Who Made Them: The All-Female Movement
“We all love clothes. Let’s remember who made them. Support garment workers.” This is the slogan of Remember Who Made Them, an all-female movement spreading awareness about the importance of celebrating garment workers, their labor and craft. The campaign’s founders, Venetia La Manna, Swatee Deepak, Devi Leiper O’Malley and Ruby Johnson, define themselves as a group of “concerned feminists” coming from the areas of art, sustainability, climate activism and philanthropy. Through Remember Who Made Them, they strive to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of the women who make the clothes. All their work is towards supporting a new fashion solidarity economy.
As the movement is a digitally-driven campaign, it mainly operates on three social media outlets. It includes a website, Instagram and a podcast with the same title. The website offers resources providing a deeper outlook on various topics within fashion, equality and sustainability. Such resources include books, articles, documentaries and series. Additionally, it also actively promotes ongoing fundraisings, which official bodies such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Fashion Revolution will organize. Otherwise, the funds go directly to relief in countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Furthermore, its Instagram is *the* educational hub for all things fashion and solidarity. With easy-to-follow-through infographics, bright designs and engaging illustrations, its posts educate about the key terms within the fashion solidarity economy. It also highlights the most important issues in the industry and holds respect toward workers by directly presenting the significance of their craft. However, most of the work occurs through the Remember Who Made Them podcast.
Digital Campaigns Educate About the Dark Side of the Fashion Industry
In its six-part podcast series, Remember Who Made Them delves deep into conversations with fashion advocates, philanthropists, social justice workers and sustainability experts. The podcast address the major issues in the industry. Such issues range from problematic slogan charity t-shirts, racism, cultural appropriation, union-busting and actions to take as individual consumers.
The guests the podcast brings on are some of the most inspiring individuals working collectively to challenge the existing, much-flawed system. These guests want to create a new fashion reality with garment workers and their rights at the front of the movement.
Some of the organizations featured in the series include Remake World, an activism-driven organization, which created the #PayUp campaign to get workers the back payments they deserve; the Solidarity Centre, “the largest U.S.-based worker’s rights organization”; Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which works closely with brands to urge corporate accountability and reduce worker abuse. Additionally, there are organizations like Dabindu Collective in Sri Lanka, Border Committee of Workers in Mexico and Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Garment and Allied Workers Union in North India.
Giving A Voice to the Workers
Yet, the most remarkable aspect about the Remember Who Made Them campaign, is that its gives a voice to garment workers themselves. It truly celebrates the labor, craft and sacrifice made along the way. Jeeva, a worker in Katunayake in Sri Lanka, said that in the country where the fashion industry is worth as much as $5 billion, only three 3% of overall profits go to workers themselves. The average hourly rate does not exceed $0.50 per person.
Saira Feroz, a home-based garment worker from Karachi in Pakistan, told Remember Who Made Them how despite working from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm most days of the year, her work does not provide her with any contract. She lacks any employee rights, and her twice-a-year-paid salary only enables her to cover basic expenses. “We just want to be paid regularly and we want to be paid fairly. (…) We just want dignity.” We hear from Saira in episode three.
Collective Effort Is the Key to System Changes
The fashion industry is an incredibly flawed machine built on systems neglecting the rights and needs of its key actors. Fashion would not exist without the dedicated garment workers producing these clothes every single day. However, millions of them are still lacking dignity, fair pay and safety. With the work of committed activists and philanthropists like the women from Remember Who Made Them, these issues will no longer remain hidden.
Together with wide recognition of the exploitations within the fashion industry, more women can join and form unions. More trust between workers is needed for induced productivity, welfare and respect for the job they do. Consumers, however, hold the power to decide how they choose to support garment workers and thank them for their labor. Simultaneously, they could build collective models celebrating garment workers in its heart.
– Natalia Barszcz