Author: Poonam Whabi

On June 17, 2020, Global Labor Justice sent a written submission to UN Special Procedure Mandates in response to the call for submissions, Protecting Human Rights During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic – Response to Joint Questionnaire by Special Procedure Mandate Holders. The submission reviews the gendered impact of COVID-19 on workers in Asian fast fashion supply chains, which produce primarily consumer apparel and footwear, and comprise 60% of the 40 million garment workers worldwide.

The human rights impacts laid out in this submission affect a workforce of mainly women with intersecting vulnerabilities associated with migrant status, living in poverty, and belonging to marginalized communities. Some women production line workers are locked out of supply chain employment — which means that they are unable to work and earn wages due to government lockdowns, layoffs, furloughs, and refusal of global brands to pay for existing contracts and orders. Other women workers are locked into supply chain employment – meaning that they are forced to work amidst the pandemic – in order to feed themselves and their families. Whether locked out or locked in, women workers on Asian fast fashion supply chains face a spectrum of violence and other human rights abuses rooted in risks associated with brand purchasing practices, concentration of a majority woman workforce in the lower tiers of supply chain production, and working conditions in supplier factories. 

GLJ-submission_UN-Special-Procedure-Mandate-Holders_COVID-19_Asian-Garment-Supply-Chains_June-17-2020

Global Labor Justice hosted its inaugural Digital Convening, Women Leading the Fight for Violence-Free Workplaces and Corporate Accountability, which featured a group of women in the labor movement leading advocacy campaigns against corporations around the world. The panel – organized in honor of  the one-year anniversary of the ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention (C190) – was moderated by GLJ staff attorney Sahiba Gill, and centered around questions of gender, race and the power in the workplace. Panelist included Allynn Umel of Fight for 15, Angeles Solis of Make the Road New York, Gabriela Rosazza of International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), and Roushaunda Williams with UNITE HERE Hands Off, Pants On Campaign. These labor rights leaders highlighted how corporations put profits before people, and put their public image before crucial policy changes to address vulnerability, harassment and racism in the workplace even in the midst of a global pandemic. As Sahiba Gill illuminated, “Corporations never let a crisis go to waste.”  

The panelists compared the realities of wage theft, harassment and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the fast fashion and hospitality industries, as well as in Amazon warehouses, McDonald’s stores across the globe and on Fyffe fruit plantations in Honduras. The Covid-19 pandemic reveals the lack of responsibility that brands take on in order to protect their employees, and, as Angeles Solis stated, “The pandemic has pulled back the cover on how our public resources fall short on what is needed for this moment.” Through her work advocating for adequate sick leave, premium pay, and health rights for McDonald’s employees, Allynn Umel described how McDonald’s restaurants have shuttered in many countries, but remain open in the US. “The moment that we’re in today has absolutely underscored the fact that fast food workers are essential, although they’ve never been treated as such,” she said. These workers are essential for global society to function – providing food, making clothing, packing goods and offering hospitality accommodations – but are frequently exposed to the worst workplace conditions and are the most likely to contract COVID-19.

The panelists’ demands for corporate accountability centered around ensuring basic rights and dignity for workers. Whether someone is working at a garment factory in Dhaka or a hotel in Chicago, they should be fairly remunerated for their labor, safe from sexual harassment, allowed to organize without retaliation, and provided adequate protective equipment, especially during a global pandemic. Central to these demands is that corporations not only value their profits and shareholders, but workers on every level of the supply chains instead of advertising empty platitudes. “We see dozens if not hundreds of corporations releasing statements on BLM while they are actively busting union organizing campaigns organized by black and brown workers,” said Gabbriella Rosazza of ILRF. 

Sahiba Gill noted that global corporations must be taken on globally. The women who spoke at this event and the people they represent are at the vanguard of this fight for change and we are optimistic that Covid-19 will serve as a catalyst for progress in this regard.  When these types of demands come to fruition, they both empower and humanize workers.

Roushaunda Williams recounted the impact of Illinois’ statewide mandate for hospitality workers to have “panic buttons” as protection from gender-based violence: it gave [the workers] safety, it gave them protection, and it made them feel important.” C190 is a step in the right direction on a global scale, but there is a long march ahead.

In the past ten years, over ten percent of Nepalis have worked abroad, mostly as guest workers in Malaysia and the Arabian Gulf in low-wage sectors. In light of COVID-19, March 22, Nepal closed its borders, at the same time as overseas employers were firing Nepali workers due to the economic downturn.   In response, Nepal’s Supreme Court ordered Nepal’s current government to rescue Nepali workers stranded overseas and exercise oversight over health protections for those remaining overseas. 

We spoke to Shom Luitel, Advocate at People’s Forum for Human Rights, who filed the case with the Supreme Court of Nepal. 

Why did you decide to file this case? 

We are an organization that provides free legal aid to migrant workers, and also files public interest litigation. During the lockdown in Nepal (which began on March 24), I was feeling really desperate because we could not do anything for the migrant workers, and that we should be doing something. The Supreme Court is closed except for COVID-19 related cases. So we went and filed the case, even in the middle of the lockdown. 

Can you tell me how COVID-19 has affected the situation of Nepali migrant workers? 

If they have been fired from their jobs, Nepali guest workers have lost the basis both for their work permits and their residency permits, so they have to be sent home. At the same time, many workers are facing problems getting paid and getting food from their employers, since the employer usually provides them food. So they are really in a bad situation (more on the situation of Nepalis in Malaysia and the Arabian Gulf here).

What did you allege in the complaint to the Court? 

We asked for an order under the Foreign Employment Act, 2007 to bring workers back home. Section 75(2) of the Act requires if there is an epidemic, war or national disaster in a country where Nepalis are working, the Government of Nepal must “take necessary steps to bring such workers back home,” and this should be paid for in part by the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund, under Section 33 of the Act.

What did the court order? 

The bench of Justice Sapana Pradhan Malla issued an interim order to address the immediate situation. She ordered the Government to prepare a report about the situation of the migrant workers. She also ordered the repatriation of stranded workers and to make sure their health is protected according to WHO standard while they are abroad.

Has the Government of Nepal acted on this order?

Not immediately, but now they feel pressure, especially because the media is covering this closely. (Note: Adv. Luitel wrote after our interview a “Roadmap” for repatriation and reintegration of migrant workers at The Himalayan Times, which lays out next steps he hopes the Government will take. As of May 14, a parliamentary committee has asked the Government to act as well). 

How has civil society (such as trade unions and recruitment agencies) responded to the order? 

We have not been in touch with them, but we hope they have welcomed the ruling. In our written brief we have also asked for the Government to support spending the Migrant Workers’ Welfare Fund on workers (Note: the Fund was introduced in the Foreign Employment Act, 2007 and supported widely by civil society including unions and recruitment agencies, but has been misappropriated in the past. It is paid for by contributions from migrant workers themselves). The National Human Rights Commission is also working to push the Government to act.

Does this ruling touch on the situation of workers coming into Nepal from India, who were stranded at the border,  or internal migrants within Nepal? 

No; it covers workers who migrated overseas on work visas (Nepalis can work in India without visas). 

(Note: Nepali unions are working to support migrant workers within Nepal to travel within Nepal and to provide food packages to their families). 

May 1, 2020

On May Day, Global Labor Justice (GLJ) launches All Eyes on Fast Fashion — New Rules for a New Era of Supply Chains, our web-based tool to redefine rules for global supply chains that create living wage jobs and  transform how corporate accountability is defined and enforced, and how value will be redistributed from finance, brands, and platforms to retail, logistics, and production workers in the global garment supply chain. 

All Eyes on Fast Fashion will begin with a demand to fifteen major fast fashion brands for a Supply Chain Relief Contribution (SRC) equal to sixty days of income paid to workers through the suppliers who directly employ them. May Day marks more than five weeks that have passed since most of the 40 million garment workers in fast fashion supply chains — mostly women — began to be deeply impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic.  

Government and corporate responses to the global COVID-19 pandemic have exposed structural inequalities created by supply chain models of production. Within the fast fashion industry — consumer apparel, footwear and home good textile — the pandemic revealed how current supply chain models widen inequality and create a race to the bottom for workers, small suppliers, and the governments of countries that rely on garment production as a major private sector export sector.  

In the face of COVID-19, all global garment brands immediately canceled or postponed orders invoking force majeure clauses, resulting in tens of millions of garment workers losing wages due to layoffs or suspension of work, creating a humanitarian crisis leaving garment workers without recourse to access their most basic needs including food, healthcare and lost wages.

More than 40 million garment workers — mostly women — earn poverty level wages and losing even a few weeks of wages has left them facing severe food, housing, education and healthcare insecurity. Additionally, brands’ production contracts have such low margins that suppliers were left without funds to retain workers or provide subsistence support.  

Most countries housing significant garment production were also left without significant enough resources to provide national income support because the current global supply chain production model forces countries to compete with each other by lowering wages, regulation, and contributions to state social safety net programs. 

GLJ’s partner, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, developed this SRC demand with nineteen partner unions in four countries. GLJ has written to ask fifteen major fast fashion brands to immediately pay 2% of their annual sourcing towards immediate relief for supply chain workers. The SRC is a relief contribution and in no way substitutes brands’ existing and ongoing supply chain obligations to pay for orders given and produced, to not cancel orders, to not seek discounts in an already under-costed supply chain, and to act accountability in relation to any future cases of downsizing, retrenchment and closure.

As workers, suppliers, and brands work together to rebuild supply chain capacity in the fast fashion sector, we must create a new era of supply chains where brands and their investors are held accountable for responsible business practices that fundamentally shift the imbalance of power and massive inequalities that have long plagued the global fashion industry. 

As quoted in the Business of Fashion’s article, Protecting Workers’ Rights is Harder Than Ever in a Global Pandemic, Global Labor Justice’s U.S. Director, JJ Rosenbaum says: “This is not the time to ask the question of what is the minimum brands can get away with and not lose public face. This is the time to ask the question of how can we reorganise supply chains in a way that is promoting equity.”

As we move towards a new reality, all eyes will be on the fast fashion industry — and we will continue to push for systemic change to create a new era where exploitation is abolished and all workers on the global garment supply chain are paid a living wage, their right to freedom of association is respected, and workplaces are free from gender based violence and harassment to ensure justice for all workers in the global economy.

SRC-fact-sheet

Migrant workers in Gulf countries are facing coronavirus related threats across migration corridors which merit immediate response from home and destination countries.

Global Labor Justice has joined 12 organizations, trade unions, and global federations calling for the governments of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to protect migrant workers rights. The letters call for Gulf governments to protect migrant workers from health risks by providing urgent access to testing and treatment in worker housing areas, humane quarantine facilities, and adequate occupational health and safety protections at all active worksites. Migrant workers who do contract coronavirus should have access to medical care. We also urge Gulf countries to end immigration detention, and refrain from detaining anyone for violating quarantine as detention is counterproductive to public health at this time.

Letter to the Bahraini Minister of Labour of Social Development Regarding Migrant Workers and Protections from COVID-19
English / Arabic

Letter to the Emirati Minister of Human Resources and Emiratisation  Regarding Migrant Workers and Protections from COVID-19
English / Arabic

Letter to the Kuwaiti Minister of Social Affairs and Labor and Director General of the Public Authority for Manpower Regarding Migrant Workers and Protections from COVID-19
English / Arabic

Letter to the Omani Minister of Manpower Regarding Migrant Workers and Protections from COVID-19
English / Arabic

Letter to the Qatar Prime Minister and Minister of the Regarding Migrant Workers and Protections from COVID-19
English / Arabic

Letter to the Saudi Minister of Labour of Social Development Regarding Migrant Workers and Protections from COVID-19
English / Arabic

Gender based violence in the Walmart garment supply chains is about the way that Walmart does business.

On May 28th, 2018 a global coalition of trade unions, worker rights and human rights organizations, which includes Asia Floor Wage Alliance, CENTRAL Cambodia, and Global Labor Justice released new factory level research detailing gender based violence in Walmart’s Asian garment supply chain. The coalition asks for immediate action by Walmart.

For women garment workers, violence and harassment isn’t limited to violence that takes place in physical workplaces, but also during commutes and in employer provided housing. Women garment workers in Walmart supply chains in Bangladesh and Cambodia reported acts of violence that include acts that inflicted sexual harm and suffering; physical violence, verbal abuse, coercion, threats and retaliation, and routine deprivations of liberty including forced overtime.

These are not isolated incidents. Rather, they reflect a convergence of risk factors for gender based violence in Walmart supplier factories that leave women garment workers systematically exposed to violence. Risk factors for violence documented in the Walmart garment supply chain, include: use of short term contracts, production targets, industrial discipline practices, wage related rights abuses, excessive working hours, and unsafe workplaces.

Barriers to accountability include: unauthorized subcontracting, denial of freedom of association, failure to require independent monitoring, and gendered cultures of impunity among perpetrators of violence and prevent women from seeking accountability and relief.

From 2018-2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is convening to set the first international labor standards on violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender based violence. Trade union leaders from around the world along with governments and business will meet to discuss the historic opportunity to create a global standard protecting women across sectors. These reports have been prepared to inform this dialogue. They aim to make sure that the experience and recommendations of low wage women workers, employed in sectors and supply chains that rely on their labor, are lifted up in order to create a strong framework that will guide employers, multi-national enterprises, and governments in eliminating gender based violence in garment supply chains and other workplaces.

Recommendations to the International Labour Organization (ILO)

Spectrum of gender based violence in Walmart garment supply chains

Gendered production roles in Walmart supplier factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia

Asia Floor Wage Alliance

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) is an international alliance of trade unions and labour rights activists who are working together to demand garment workers are paid a living wage. It began in 2005 when trade unions and labour rights activists from across Asia came together to agree on a strategy for improving the lives of garment workers: a wage for garment workers across Asia that would be enough for workers to live on.