In fact, many of the companies only publicly responded to the crisis in the last month or so—and major suppliers have only just started to commit to repayment in the past several days.“Brands are basically happy to look the other way when hundreds of thousands of the workers who make their products are being denied wages that they need for daily survival,” Hensler said. “To allow that to go on unchecked for months—nearly two years—until the brands are called publicly to account for it—I think it says a lot about the thinness of the commitments that they claim to have for the welfare of the workers.”In the end, Western corporations essentially control the fates of scores of garment workers of color, predominantly women. It’s what Madhumita Dutta, an assistant geography professor at Ohio State University, calls the “racialized nature of this power asymmetry” in the garment industry. “We give this unconscious mandate for this kind of stuff to happen as a society,” Dutta said. “It's invisible. We don’t want to know and see it.”
“These brands have been profiting from completely inhumane labor practices.”
Starting in March, apparel factories in India completely locked down for a while to control the spread of COVID-19. Many American and European brands also canceled or delayed their orders after seeing sales plunge in the first few months of the public health emergency.As a result, some factories were forced to shut down or lay people off. Many workers around the world went hungry. Even in good economic times, fashion brands force their suppliers to keep costs low to remain competitive. Garment factories have been made to work faster and for worse profit margins over the past several years, and laborers’ wages sometimes end up getting cut, according to Dutta, who collaborated on a 2019 garment supply-chain study focused on India. For example, 80% of workers there said their wages couldn’t cover their living expenses, according to the study.
“This is the largest wage theft we’re aware of anywhere in the global industry in terms of the total impact on workers.”
“PVH and Gap deserve a lot of credit for achieving the breakthrough of securing Shahi’s commitment to pay the proper wage and compensate its workers,” Hensler said. Asked for comment, a spokesperson for PVH said the company “continues to be in extensive dialogue with all relevant parties, including civil society NGOs, labor rights organizations, and our suppliers in the region to bring a resolution to this important issue while it remains under legal review.” A spokesperson for Gap said the company had established a timeline with its suppliers “by which we expect full compliance” with the proper legal wages and back pay. Abercrombie & Fitch, one of the several U.S. brands that advocates identified as getting its garments produced in Karnataka, did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment but told the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre that its vendor confirmed it would start payments of the 2020 wage increase in January.Well-known fast-fashion behemoth H&M also told the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre it had “made it clear to our suppliers in Karnataka that they must pay the workers legally mandated minimum wages, including all arrears,” or face “serious consequences.”Zara said in a statement to VICE News that “almost all” of the eight factories it worked with in Karnataka had paid or committed to paying workers the 2020 pay increase.The company didn’t respond when asked to identify the factories.Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.