Fast Fashion – Slow Justice?

When you hear the term fast fashion, what pops into your head? Trendy designs, hot off the runways of Europe, reinterpreted at prices for all? Affordable, mass-produced clothing? How about labor unrest?

It’s long been true that the garment industry, as with others in which production is outsourced to developing nations, has had its troubles with employment practices at source factories. Those practices continue, particularly in factories in Asia and Eastern Europe. Most production appears to be completed fairly. Recently, however, an unwelcome spotlight has fallen on Zara and its parent company, Inditex. Back in July 2016, the Bravo Tekstil factory in Turkey, which had manufactured clothes for Inditex under the Zara brand, as well for as other fast fashion houses such as Mango and Next, abruptly closed. The former Bravo workers went to court to obtain a ruling that they were entitled to three months’ unpaid wages and severance pay from their former employer. With the employer’s principal having disappeared with the funds that the factory had received for the production of the garments, the workers attempted to have Inditex and the other fashion houses take responsibility for the payment of their lost wages. Although apparently not legally liable, Inditex had announced in 2016 that– together with Mango and Next – it would establish a “hardship fund” to compensate the workers. The three companies have since offered to pay about one quarter of the claims, collectively offering the equivalent in Turkish lira of about US $700,000.

That did not satisfy the former workers, who have focused their efforts on Inditex and the Zara brand in their attempt to recover their money. A number of these workers recently went into Zara stores in Istanbul and inserted hidden tags into merchandise. The tags advised potential purchasers that the people who had made Zara clothes such as those had not been paid for their work. Although it is not clear if the pieces so chosen were made in the shuttered factory, the resulting publicity surely did Zara no favors. Indeed, if there is a party in the wrong, it is the former employer, but that party is out of the picture, and the result is contention over what was intended to be an act of corporate generosity.

Why do these situations exist? In large part, it is due to the fast-fashion business model, which requires production of vast quantities of inexpensive clothes very quickly (as the name implies). Rapid and cheap can be, and has been, accomplished successfully many times, but the exceptions can be horrific. The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,130 garment-factory workers and injured over 2,500 more several years ago, is the most famous case in point.

How can a company as much as half a world away, eager for quick production, trust that its sources pay fairly, honor agreements to workers, provide clean working conditions and—quite literally—assure that the roof will not come down?

Contracts with source factories typically contain clauses prohibiting child labor and forced labor, mandating safe and healthy working conditions—and demanding compliance with often very strictly delineated employment standards and practices. But from far away, that is difficult to enforce, and as anyone who has ever inspected a factory knows, when they are aware that you are coming, things start to look much better—at least as long as you are there.

Earlier this year, a coalition of labor and human rights groups produced a report on transparency in the global garment industry supply chain. The hope is that, by encouraging fashion companies to publish accurate information concerning the factories in which their garments are manufactured, they will undertake to assist further to prevent, address and correct any human rights abuses that may occur there. It remains to be seen as to how successful these new initiatives will be. All that can be certain for now is that the problem will not go away and that counsel for companies seeking sourcing in developing areas should be diligent in working with management to help minimize both business risks and any potential harm to factory workers.

Credit:  Laura E. Longobardi

Laura is counsel to Phillips Nizer’s Litigation Department and Labor & Employment Law and Real Estate Law Practices.