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SAN FRANCISCO – Gloria Steinem famously said, “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” Here’s the truth: look in the mirror. The sweatpants and face mask that have seen you through COVID-19 are evidence of wage theft, money stolen from the most vulnerable women in the world. I hope you are outraged. As women who have long fought for women’s empowerment, we are outraged. 

This past women’s history month we were hard pressed to celebrate gains. 2020 was a year of monumental loss. We lost family and friends, bore the disproportionate brunt of job losses and pay cuts while struggling with childcare. COVID has forced women to confront the ways our contributions in the workplace and at home are consistently undervalued. This reality will not fade away when we are all vaccinated. And this reality is even more brutal for the predominantly Black and brown women, some 70 million of them, who make our clothes from Los Angeles, to Colombo to Hawaasa. 

Over one year ago, the fashion industry’s catastrophic decision to refuse payment for completed clothing orders heading into the COVID-19 pandemic imploded millions of garment workers’ lives. When retail stores were shuttered and fashion sales were in free-fall in March of 2020, dozens of global brands refused to pay for an estimated $40 billion worth of finished goods that workers had spent countless hours sewing. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, workers are still owed somewhere between $3.19 billion to $5.79 billion in stolen wages from Spring 2020 to now as a result of lockdowns, cancelled orders, dismissals and pay cuts. Worker’s Rights Consortium reports that 56 per cent of garment factories have been forced to accept some new orders below cost, meaning for less that the price of labour and fabric involved in manufacturing the goods. 

Pre-pandemic the women making our clothes were already earning poverty wages while being on the frontlines of fashion’s environmental impacts. During COVID, the fashion industry buying behaviour has thrust her into the gravest economic crisis in our lifetime. 77 per cent of garment workers report that they or a member of their household have gone hungry during the pandemic, and that 75 per cent have had to borrow money or go into debt in order to buy food. If fashion is to build back better, we must first do right by fashion’s most essential workers. We must #PayHer. 

When governments and industry left the makers of our clothes behind, citizen advocacy groups rallied in solidarity with labour organisers. Remake, whose Women’s Leadership Circle we both serve on, launched the now viral #PayUp campaign, working closely with the Clean Clothes Campaign and Worker Rights Consortium. With relentless protesting and petitioning, we helped recoup at least $15 billion owed to garment factories worldwide from over a dozen major fashion companies, including Zara, Gap Inc. and Next. Without the help of #PayUp, it’s estimated that millions more would have lost their jobs without pay or any sort of social safety net. The campaign’s success is because of ordinary people who signed the petition, fired off a #PayUp tweet, or protested outside stores in solidarity with garment workers.

And if you think that fashion brands would suffer as a result of paying workers, the truth will set you free (again!). In a recent McKinsey & Company report, it was shown the market capitalization of the top 20 fashion brands increased by 11 per cent during the pandemic. The billionaires behind many of the fashion brands we know have increased their wealth during the pandemic. A few examples: Nike founder Phil Knight’s wealth increased 66% to $49 billion; UNIQLO founder Tadashi Yanai’s wealth doubled during the pandemic to $41.6 billion; H&M heir Stefan Persson is worth $20 billion, and his son Karl-Johan, H&M’s chairman, is worth more than $2 billion. We could go on. Many brands, despite returning to profitability by the fall of 2020, still refuse to #PayUp, and factories continue to underpay workers on a massive scale. 

Meanwhile garment workers have seen a 21 per cent decline in their wages, growing hunger and a rise in union-busting and gender-based violence. The fact that our fight continues for basic human rights and economic justice for garment workers demonstrates an urgent need to build back better, assuring a fashion future that centres workers, citizens and our planet. The PayUp Fashion coalition’s seven demands do just that. Co-authored by two former garment workers Nazma Akter, executive director of AWAJ Foundation and Ashila Niroshi, director of Stand-Up Lanka, along with Remake’s founder Ayesha Barenblat and author and journalist Elizabeth Cline, this coalition puts forth a vision to keep fashion’s essential workers safe during the pandemic and to assure living wages and regulatory reform going forward. 

Given the power enjoyed by American corporations, it might seem impossible that citizens can effect change other than through our political representatives or the courts. But when sufficient organised pressure from citizens is turned on, corporations can, and often do, change their ways. That is how inroads were made to get antibiotics and high fructose syrup out of our food systems. It was grassroot organising that shifted political will for the #Fightfor15. 

There is now a growing body of citizens and policymakers rallying to pass the Garment Worker Protection Act in Los Angeles and the conversation in Europe is shifting from companies managing their supply chains through voluntary corporate responsibility programs to mandatory human rights due diligence. 

We women want more, expect more, and deserve more from a month built on centering us. As the month of March comes to a close, let’s remember Her. Women who have the same family responsibilities we do, women who want to be valued and respected at work as much as we do. It is time to pull back the curtain and take action to protect garment workers, because she, like us, is fighting daily, but invisibly, behind the clothes we wear. 

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Natasha Desterro Dolby is the co-founder of the San Francisco non-profit Freedom Forward, a board member of the Freedom Fund, an investor, and philanthropist, with a passion for addressing social justice challenges and supporting women and girls.

Andrea Dew Steele is the founder of Emerge, an organisation that recruits, trains and provides a powerful network to Democratic women who want to run for office. She has spent her career promoting and fighting for women’s rights both in the United States and around the world.


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