Early last year, when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) took a step forward to help the global apparel industry combat the pandemic threat with its ‘Call to Action’ initiative, it caught the attention of one and all and became the most talked matter. A year later, not many are talking about it and the initiative has lost momentum. Though all agree that the initiative is timely and point on, will the Call to Action also die a slow death like many other well-intended worker initiatives of the past!
The Call to Action came at a time when the apparel industry was badly hit owing to cancellation of several orders by brands in many countries especially Bangladesh, Cambodia and India. It was a time when apparel factories and retail stores were getting closed all around, and there was a massive loss of income and jobs. In such a scenario, ILO’s Call to Action came as a breath of fresh air and was welcomed by most industry leaderships, both as associations and individual companies as a necessary step in building collaborations to create collective resilience in the unprecedented crisis.
The primary intent behind ILO’s Call to Action was to protect workers’ health, safety, income and jobs to survive during the pandemic menace. To make it work, everyone from Government, brands, retailers, manufacturers and banks came together and urgently created some solid and specific measures, giving the initiative a very promising start.
Around 100 big retailers, associations and organisations like IndustriALL Global Union, Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), adidas, Bestseller, C&A, H&M Group, International Apparel Federation (IAF), Inditex, M&S, NEXT, Primark, PVH Corporation, Ralph Lauren, VF Corporation, Under Armour and Zalando SE came forward to help ILO in the process and they identified priority countries, which comprised Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Haiti and Ethiopia, all of them being major sourcing destinations. The countries too have been setting up groups and bodies to ensure the rapid implementation of Call to Action.
Plans drawn for priority countries…
Keeping in line with funds and financial help to support implementation in priority countries, Bangladesh has been committed a finance of € 115 million from EU and German Government (as chief donors) to help support cash transfers for garment workers, pending administrative approvals through the Ministry of Finance and setting up of the disbursement mechanism.
That’s not all! There’s also a global multi-donor ILO initiative, with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), on ‘Income protection for the workers in the RMG sector’, which includes US $ 1.8 million for cash transfers in Bangladesh. The ILO has proposed setting up of formal tripartite committee – including Government, employer and worker representatives – to guide such a process and to advise on current social protection and cash transfer initiatives. The first tripartite meeting was held in October 2020.
Similarly, a meeting was held in August 2020 in Myanmar, wherein the endorsees committed to work together within the Group in a way that complement significant efforts already undertaken to support income replacement. The initial priorities also included a swift assessment of the financial needs of the sector. In Cambodia too, the BMZ funded ‘Income protection for the workers in the RMG sector’ initiative included funding of € 1.95 million for cash transfers for the garment workers. There have also been plans to launch Cambodia’s apparel sector development strategy as a part of the sector’s Economic Response Strategy to COVID-19 – all with the full support of ILO.
As far as India is concerned, COVID-19 response funding has been committed to the country, but to date has not been targeted at the apparel sector. Employers and unions in India held their first meeting in September last year and are currently developing a process to agree on a shared set of priorities.
Yet the initiative has not delivered what it promised
Indeed, ‘Call to Action’ was one of the biggest initiatives undertaken last year for the welfare of garment workers, but if media reports are anything to go by, then the apparel workers in Myanmar, Haiti, Cambodia and Pakistan are yet to receive any funding from this initiative.
There have also been instances wherein many brands were found using different ways to wriggle out of contracts; some of them paid for cancelled orders only after they were publicly named and shamed. For a decent summary of where brands are on that front, the COVID-19 Brand Tracker of the Worker Rights Consortium is very useful. Many renowned brands had to be dragged to even pay for cancelled orders.
There have also been cases where brands have been accused of using the Call to Action only to bolster their PR. Contrary to what the brands preached, several orders kept on getting cancelled and heavy price cuts were imposed. It doesn’t then require a rocket science to understand how an apparel supplier would pay its workers in such a scenario.
Let’s take the case of the EU and German Government fund for Bangladesh, which amounts to € 113 million. Now, in Bangladesh, where several garment workers have lost their jobs or witnessed huge reductions in pay, the scheme provides for Taka 3,000 (€ 29.31) every month for eligible workers for three months. As per some media reports, only 3,266 workers have been deemed eligible so far, which means only € 287,179 of the € 113 million has been committed to Bangladeshi garment workers so far. Add to all these, when one sees big fashion brands raking in bucks, it distinctly brings out the gaping holes in the system.
Worker Associations inactive and ineffective on the initiative
Despite sending out requests to many social organisations to share update on the Global Call to Action, the response is disappointing, with many not even acknowledging the request. The interest and initial excitement have died down. Many organisations are not even updated on what is happening on the initiative, putting blame on slow country response and lack of funds.
Fair Wear Foundation, which supports workers in the apparel industry in realising their rights to safe, dignified, properly paid employment, did respond to AR’s request for update and came forward to state: ‘We welcomed the ILO global call in 2020 for Action in the Global Garment Industry. However, the conversations on setting out commitments for joint industry action to respond to the pandemic has been taking time and is mostly at the national levels. The Call to Action has limited success in responding to urgent financial needs of workers without social protection. But some progress has been made on advancing social dialogue between industry and unions even though through small steps. Given the pandemic continues, we look forward to more constructive engagement and involvement of MSIs like FairWear by ILO in international conversations to see how there can be a collective effort in supporting workers out of crisis.’
What needs to be done on the part of ILO now is to find out how much money brands are putting into the initiative, how much has actually reached the garment workers and if there is any accountability in these cases. ILO surely understands this but what needs to be done – and done quickly – is ILO needs to get something legally-binding implemented to this effect to secure the much needed funds from the brands and ensure that ‘Call to Action’ doesn’t end as another voluntary programme that looks good only on paper.
It’s been a good initiative to begin with, but its failure to take off is the combined fault of all the stakeholders who make the excuse of funds shortage leading to failure. A little more effort on the part of ILO will not only help the garment workers, but also help the initiative stand out among other such programmes.