Handmade, barely paid By Khushi Choudhari

The pandemic has become a humanitarian crisis, but the fast fashion industry’s functioning is to blame for the poor condition of the wage workers.

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign’s (garment industry’s largest alliance of labour unions and non-governmental organizations) report collated in August 2020, garment workers around the world are owed between 3.19 billion and 5.78 billion USD in wages for just the first three months of the pandemic (March-May) because of the forced shutdown of the manufacturing industries.

“The pandemic has had grave effects on the fashion industry as a whole. The impact of Fast fashion is extremely tragic and vast,” said Jasmine Walia, 25, Co-founder – Fashion Sapling (sustainable fashion forum) based in Mumbai.

Fast fashion is the greatest foe of the fashion industry, slowly depleting it of its charm, creativity, and essence. It is the term used to describe clothing designs, that move quickly off the catwalk to the stores, to meet new trends. To make it affordable, the workers are exploited and laboured for hours without being paid the bare minimum. The production process and quality of the product are provided an insignificant amount of care. There is nothing glamorous about the making of fast fashion as the clothes display.

For the fashion industry to sustain in the long haul, the environment, economy, and people need to be prioritised and cared for. “Consumers only see the final product and for few, sustainability is limited to environmental concerns. They don’t
know how the workers live, how do they make clothes, or how much they are paid for it,” said Himangi Singh, community and events co-ordinator,

SUSS (online community Sustainable Style Speak) and a worker’s rights advocate.

Himangi enlightened us on the fact that most of the production takes place, in South East Asia, where a large population aids cheap labour. According to The Economic Times article dated 9th April 2020, India’s garment industry is among
the world’s biggest for manufacturing and export, employing 12.9 million people in formal factory settings, and millions more indirectly in informal, homebased settings.

Research by the University of California, Berkeley found that women and girls from the most marginalised communities toiled for as little as 11 paisa an hour in homes across India. Child labour and forced labour were rife and wages regularly suppressed. (courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd)

One such incident that highlights the plight of workers is the Delhi fires on 8th December 2019 at a factory in the Anaj Mandi area of north Delhi. According to the Firstpost article ‘Delhi factory fires kills 43 in Anaj Mandi, most asphyxiate; building owner, manager arrested’ dated 8th December 2019, 43 people died and around 100 were injured in a four-storey building housing illegal manufacturing units. The building did not have a fire clearance, and no fire safety equipment was found installed on the premises.

According to the infographic by globalfundforwoman.org, 75% of the workers in the garment industry are women. Most of these woman work long hours without contracts and are often subjected to sexual abuses and harassment.

These workers are underprivileged and do not have the power to bargain with employers. They need money to meet their ends. If
they raise their voice, employers can easily find a replacement for them. Retailers also do not own these manufacturing factories making it’s easy for them to shift their production where it’s cheaper.

“Pandemic proved to be an avenue where garment manufacturers could be exploited more by being refused work and payment in the promised time. Garment workers usually work on a contract and have zero job security,” said Jasmine. She highlighted that, due to the loss in sales in the first and second quarters, new production has been at a halt due to which there was a major loss in employment. But situations are likely to improve in the coming few months and there is hope that the workers who lost their jobs, gain their livelihood back.

The pandemic underlined the lack of security that the workers possess. “Slow fashion questions the labour policies and brings about a strategic and systematic change in the system,” said Jasmine. Slow fashion is the mindful production and consumption of clothes. It emphasizes the art of making clothes and celebrates the skills of the craftspeople that make them. It encourages slower production schedules, fair wages, lower carbon footprints.

A nagging concern that major retailers bring to the table is that there are more workers employed in a fast fashion state. Himangi argued, “If the quality of life of the workers is bad, you cannot call it real employment. They are just figures. If you’re employing three people with the combined wages of what should be given to one person, what’s the point of excess employment?” Slow fashion is the need of the hour, but it is only achievable as a shared responsibility. Consumer’s choice shouldn’t be determined by societal expectations but with empathy towards the system. Fashion norms need to be questioned. A company needs to do the bare minimum and be transparent about their production process. The government has to be as involved in avoiding the exploitation of the workers.

“To ensure the wellbeing of wage workers, stricter labour laws need to be put in place and implemented. This will not just ensure that labourer’s rights are protected, but also take care of their holistic growth,” said Charu Bakshi, 24, Co-founder – Fashion Sapling (sustainable fashion forum).

Even though slow fashion is integral for the fashion industry to sustain its workers, we cannot discount the demographics and socio-economic factors that aid it.

Creating awareness and questioning the process of manufacturing will nudge the big fashion giants to take any action.