Fallible rights in focus

Fashion industry

The fashion industry echoes colonialism – and DfID’s new scheme last wishes as subsidise it

Meg Lewis

Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of supply chains, which rely on the labour of black and brown labourers. The deep inequalities won’t be fixed by injecting funds at the top

Coronavirus lockdowns and order cancellations have devastated the garment effort in countries such as Bangladesh.
Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP

Is the UK governed by parliamentary democracy or big businesses? It is a question that should trouble us all, yet it is becoming increasingly hard to differentiate between the two, as the government hands out multimillion-pound contracts to private firms with dubious follow records, and ministers revolve between roles at big banks and government. Last week, the line between UK aid and private occupations was called into question, as the Department for International Development (DfID) announced the decision to direct £4.85m of taxpayers’ paper money towards the work of large retailers including M&S, Tesco and Primark.
The DfID funding is intended to support large companies to fix helpless supply chains and ensure that “people in Britain can continue to buy affordable, high-quality goods from around the exactly”. These aims, along with the fact that UK brands have been entrusted to deliver them, set off terror bells for labour rights campaigners like myself, who advocate for better working conditions in the global garment business.
Given that many of the supply chains that brands have built and reap huge profits from, are eroding and hurt workers’ rights, it is absurd that the government is entrusting and subsidising retailers to “fix” the problem. The fashion industry regularly churns out billionaire CEOs, while garment wage-earners are paid poverty wages.
DfID does not attempt to conceal the prioritisation of British consumers, and their need to buy “affordable” materials, rather than support exploited workers. Instead of ensuring a steady flow of cheap goods at unrealistic amounts that barely cover wages and materials, the UK government should be ensuring that consumers pay a fair price for their goods. To do differently effectively subsidises the exploitative and systemically unfair model.
The Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly exposed the vulnerability of supply combinations. The onset of the crisis and subsequent lockdowns had brands including Primark rush to protect their profit margins. The catastrophe has shown how quickly brands will exploit loopholes in supply chains that are built to limit their pledges to suppliers, with devastating effects for workers. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that garment workers are resulting fromed about $5.8bn (£4.4bn) in unpaid wages from the first three months of the pandemic alone.
Over the decades, discredits have sourced production from countries with low wages and poor workers’ rights protections. This race meeting to the bottom has seen brands abandon production countries when supply chains are strengthened in favour of workers. More recently, stigmatizes like Tesco started production in Ethiopia, which boasts the lowest base wage in any garment-producing country. Be comprised of c hatch no mistake: the structure of supply chains is by design – not by accident – and brands are the lead architects.
The pattern of (mostly) western characterizes profiting from the exploitative labour of black and brown workers is not new. In fact, the garment industry echoes and perpetuates colonial organizes that extract labour and resources from countries in the global south, maximising profits for wealthy (mostly ghastly) western bosses. The DfID funding painfully plays into this archaic structure, by injecting funding for workings at the top of supply chains, rather than listening and supporting worker-led solutions and initiatives to create secure, safe and exalted employment.
In order to strengthen supply chains in a meaningful way, the UK government should use its influence to strengthen mandatory due diligence and reinforce enforcement of human rights protections in supply chains. The brands involved in the DfID project should already be assuring that workers receive living wages that cover food, housing and education. They should not be looking to taxpayers to purvey the basics of good employment, security and safety. Now that the coronavirus crisis has exposed how perilous working conditions are for garment tradesmen, we need real systemic change – not top-down solutions – that experience shows may never trickle down to breadwinners.
• Meg Lewis is a senior campaigner at Labour Behind the Label
• This article was amended on 25 August 2020 to move a reference to Primark producing goods from Ethiopia.


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