As COVID-19 spread rapidly across the world, fashion brands sought ways to cover profit losses inevitably coming their way. Their solution? Take it from those with the least power and least legal protection: their workers at the bottom of the supply chain.
The decision was therefore made by brands to cancel orders with factories, including orders that had already been completed or were in the process of being completed. The fundamental issue is that factories do not get paid for orders until they are completed and shipped, so factory owners have been unable to cover the costs of production for cancelled orders, including workers’ wages. As a result, thousands of workers have faced factory closures, unpaid wages, and mass layoffs (particularly union members).
One of the most prominent culprits in the UK was the Edinburgh Woollen Mills (EWM) group, owned by billionaire Philip Day, which is the parent company of brands including Peacocks, Austin Reed and Jaeger. According to Bangladeshi suppliers, the brand owes over £27 million , after they cancelled orders for tens of thousands of items, and demanded up to 70% discounts on millions of pounds worth of goods that had already been completed. Mostafiz Uddin, a supplier in Bangladesh, described the actions of EWM as, “…the worst in the industry,”.
In response to their actions, 30 suppliers sent EWM a letter, accusing them of taking “undue advantage of the Covid-19”, and warned that the suppliers would “have no option but take the decision to place an embargo and blacklist the buyers and their agents who do not comply with our instructions.”
Considering the importance of the garment industry for Bangladesh’s economy, and its dependence on investment from multinational brands, this move from suppliers to threaten brands with blacklisting indicates the sheer devastation EWM is bringing to the industry.
“We will have no option but take the decision to place an embargo and blacklist the buyers and their agents who do not comply with our instructions, which will prevent them from conducting business with our members in the future either directly or indirectly.”
Following the devastating move from Peacocks and other brands to save their own backs at the expense of their own workers, activists around the world have responded by demanding brands ‘#PayUp’ for cancelled orders. While some brands have responded to the calls, with several agreeing to pay for cancelled orders, many have also ignored the public, and have even attempted to justify their callous decision. However, Peacocks, under EWM, have taken it a step further and are actively blocking anyone who criticises them on social media, while limiting the ability of people to comment on their Instagram posts.
The sheer inhumanity of silencing concerns for the thousands of workers going unpaid for months, with no means of supporting themselves and their families, is enraging, but also a sinister reminder of the fashion industry’s routine practice of concealing its brutal violence.
The fashion industry has a renowned reputation of masking the systematic exploitation of its workforce that we see today. This has been considerably noticable in recent years, as social justice has become a mainstream topic of conversation globally, with brands more than aware that the working conditions of their workers completely contradict any concept of justice.
In fear of losing public support, several tactics have been orchestrated to portray brands as benevolent entities with an ardent devotion to humanity, as they simultaneously intensify the exploitation of garment workers making their clothes. We have seen this in the bolstering of philanthropic ‘projects’ by brands, such as Peacocks and their celebration of NHS workers during the pandemic, who they refer to as ‘Peacocks heroes’, offering them discounts and gift cards. Money has been pumped into elaborate green-washing campaigns, utilised to promote brands by amplifying their concern for environmental issues, while completely neglecting issues of worker exploitation. This includes brands lauching clothing lines made out of organic cotton, or embarking on recycling projects. Let’s also not forget the ironic use of feminism by brands, despite brands reinforcing a patriarchical regime that ensures the continued oppression of Black and Brown women, a central tool for brands to ensure low costs via a more ‘docile’, ‘easily exploitable’ workforce.
More recently, I have had the constant displeasure of seeing brands celebrated for including South Asian women/culture in their adverts, while simultaneously witnessing the suffering of my South Asian sisters within their supply chains. Diversity and representation is yet another crucial tactic to ensure the conversation of racism in the fashion industry is limited to the boardroom and billboards, rather than the factory floor.
The Pay Up campaign is tearing down the ethical charade these brands have curated, compelling brands like Peacocks to now actively silence criticism, in a bid to preserve their public image.
When I realised I had been blocked my heart sank. This was yet another way brands were going to silence the struggle of workers, so they can keep their exploitative corporate machine running. Their actions, as vile as they are, are a mere symptom of the ongoing preservation of capitalism and systematic extraction of profit from workers of the Global South. The exhaustive efforts and money thrown at attempts to silence criticism of the supply chain means collective action is central to our solidarity. We must speak out. Whenever and however we can.
Anyway, since Peacocks have blocked me, here is my public message to them:
Your attempts to silence us will not be forgotten. But it is not too late for you to do the right thing and pay your workers. You’ve blocked me on Instagram and Twitter, so you have compelled me to ask you this publicly:
What are you doing to ensure your garment workers are being paid their wages during the pandemic?
JOIN US 11 TUESDAY 4PM-8PM GMT FOR OUR CALL OF ACTION AGAINST PEACOCKS!
We will be targeting Peacocks on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and email during those four hours! Even if you are blocked, you can still call them out!
I will be taking over No Sweat’s Twitter acc, so I can directly target them so join me!
Materials you can use are here.