Workers Paid NEXT
to nothing in covid
When the pandemic hit, brands stopped ordering from factories and many shut down without paying workers. The Wai Full workers are continuing to fight for their pay and severance. This is their case.
In January 2021, mid-pandemic, workers at Wai Full Textiles in Cambodia started to be laid off. The factory officially closed in May 2021, and workers were paid a small sum to cover their annual leave, but $500,000 was left outstanding.
Female-led union, CATU from Cambodia, contacted members in the factory and launched a campaign for justice, calling for the workers to get their pay outs. Wai Full Garments, the company, went bankrupt and dissolved all its assets and, after some months, its parent company in Hong Kong also dissolved. The workers decided their only option was to reach out to the brands.
Superdry, NEXT and ASOS were contacted by LBL on behalf of the workers in Autumn 2021. A long discussion ensued, with meetings with the brands to verify the facts, to hear from the union, to explore legal options. By winter 2022, the brands asked for a confidential sum at which workers would settle and discussed how to get this to workers. This option was discussed also at length. Yet as a final kick in the teeth, at the end of this long process, NEXT and Superdry turned around to say they didn’t think it was their duty to pay.
We are now launching a campaign to call on NEXT and Superdry to change their minds and contribute towards the sum that Wai Full workers are owed.
While this campaign may be about one small group of workers and their fight for justice, this underdog struggle is also emblematic of the huge COVID injustice that left women of colour at the bottom of supply chains globally, owed billions in wages and legal pay outs. While fashion minimised its losses and moved on, workers were left to pay the cost. This small case is symptomatic of the wider struggle for covid justice.
Why should brands pay?
Fashion companies choose to make clothes at arms length – in factories where they aren’t the employer but do get all the benefits of cheap labour and low regulations. So when things go wrong, can they simply wash their hands of the issues? Human rights guiding principles for business suggest that brands need to show that they have made every effort to protect people who make their goods from human rights violations, and take steps to remedy issues where their business has caused or contributed towards that harm. Here is the difficult part – as there isn’t financial transparency the workers don’t have the financial data to show that by pulling out of a factory, the group of brands in this case ’caused or contributed’ towards the factory closing.
To us it is fairly clear that in the pandemic when they stopped ordering this contributed towards the factory’s decision to close and to not pay its workers. But because we can’t show it, brands say they don’t have a duty to provide remedy to the workers. Yet why should the workers be left with nothing? We believe the brands should at the very least contribute towards the money owed to the workers as a statement of principle. Workers should be paid their legally owed pay and severance for the duration of their employment.
In the end, if the brands don’t pay, the workers will be left with nothing, and this isn’t right. They should pay because it is the right thing to do.