Top fashion brands face legal challenge over garment workers’ rights in Asia

By Annie Kelly

Legal complaints are being filed against some of the world’s largest fashion brands in major garment-producing countries across Asia in a groundbreaking attempt to hold the global fashion industry legally accountable for human rights violations in the countries where their clothing is made.

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), a pan-Asian labour rights group, says it is using legal challenges to argue that global clothing brands should be considered joint employers, along with their suppliers, under national laws and be held accountable for alleged wage violations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two of these complaints have already been filed with the authorities in India and Sri Lanka, with further complaints pending in Indonesia and Pakistan.

In India, AFWA and local labour unions have filed a legal complaint against H&M to the labour department in Bengaluru. The complaint asks that H&M be held jointly liable for alleged labour abuses that took place in 2020 at a supplier factory, where it claims the brand “has total economic control over the workers’ subsistence, skill, and continued employment”.

A similar legal complaint has been submitted to the labour commissioner in Sri Lanka against Levi Strauss, Columbia Sporting Company, Asics, DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger claiming they are acting as “shadow employers” at a supplier factory in Katunayake where workers lost their jobs and did not receive full pay.

The central claims and arguments of the legal complaints were based on extensive interviews and analysis that AFWA conducted for a new report it launched this week.

The report looked at the impact of “wage theft” in six garment-producing countries – in which it claimed that many of the world’s largest fashion brands were jointly responsible for a fall or “gap” in wages, and the resulting poverty and destitution of millions of garment workers across Asia.

It argues that the actions of fashion brands during the pandemic in cancelling billions of dollars of clothing orders directly resulted in severe humanitarian consequences for workers in their supply chains.

Many workers lost their jobs, had their hours cut or were sent home without pay for months at a time. The pre-existing poverty-level wages of garment workers across Asia did not provide any form of safety blanket that would have allowed them to tide over loss of employment and wages during the pandemic.

The report also claims that even though workers’ rights were protected under national laws, most garment workers did not have the access or power to seek redress for lost wages during the pandemic due to the need to find other work, the threat of destitution and low enforcement of labour laws by the authorities.

One worker from Sri Lanka, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she was unable to feed her children after her hours were cut in the summer of 2020.

“Our employer told us that the brands had cancelled orders so we were forced to take holidays and our hours were reduced,” she said. “Already, I was struggling to survive on my wages and relied on overtime to cover costs, and so I found that I couldn’t afford to buy enough food for the family. Every day I was afraid, wondering how we would survive.”

Ashim Roy, an Indian trade unionist and AFWA member, said that legal action was the only way to ensure that brands were forced to put workers’ rights over profit.

“After the carnage that was unleashed on workers last year we wanted to examine the possibility of holding brands legally accountable instead of only having the leverage or threat of reputational damage,” he said.

“We are confident that in some countries there is very strong case law for joint liability, but it has never been tested for a brand and a supplier. Our core argument is that the reality of fashion supply chains is that brands do not just buy garments. They determine and control every step in the production process of that garment being made and so they should not be able to continue to argue that the workers who make their clothes do not work for them.”

In a statement on the legal complaint, H&M said: “Although it is our suppliers who employ the garment workers, we as a large company have a responsibility to do our utmost to contribute to a good dialogue between trade unions and suppliers to help them come to an agreement if conflicts arise.”

It also said that in the specific case referred to in the legal complaint, the workers were paid “in line with legal regulations”.

Columbia Sportswear Company said that it had received no evidence of a complaint to the labour commissioner. It said it did not cancel orders or re-negotiate product costs for open orders, adding: “We believe that the strategies we enacted were able to reduce the impacts of the global pandemic on our supply chain partners and their employees.”

Asics also said it had not received notice of the legal complaint, and said that it did not agree with the argument that it had a joint business relationship with its suppliers.

It said all workers at the supplier factory named in the lawsuit were fully compensated in line with local labour laws and it did not cancel any orders during the pandemic.

Levi Strauss declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said it had taken full responsibility for orders placed before the onset of the pandemic and had provided more than £1m in grants to organisations supporting garment workers.

DKNY and PVH, the owner of Tommy Hilfiger, did not respond to requests for comment.