Pay Up. You might have seen those words as you were scrolling through your feed last spring, that’s if you weren’t personally involved in the campaign yourself. After it started in March, the Pay Up campaign went viral thanks to one simple request — make brands pay for completed work — because, as we were all learning terms like “R number” and “Shelter in Place,” the fashion industry was quietly screwing over their garment workers, even more so than usual.
Almost as soon as lockdowns were announced, major giants in the fashion industry including Uniqlo, Nike, H&M, Fashion Nova, and Gap abruptly canceled orders and decided to not pay for work already completed. The estimated value of the canceled orders was a staggering $40 billion globally. In Bangladesh alone, one of the major places where our clothes are made, companies were refusing to pay for $6 billion worth of already-produced product — that’s around two percent of the country’s entire GDP.
Elizabeth Cline, one of the founders of the Pay Up campaign, describes it as a “devastating sum of money.” As she tells Highsnobiety, “the decision to cancel orders created a modern slavery situation. It’s corporate theft that is creating the conditions for a humanitarian crisis on a level that we haven't seen in our lifetimes.”
Because of course, what happens when your workplace loses money? Workers get laid off or just don’t get paid. Studies made at the time show that when brands canceled orders, this had an immediate knock-on effect for garment workers who overwhelmingly are living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Ayesha Barenblat, one of the founders of the Pay Up campaign and the founder and CEO of Remake, tells us the precarious work situations at factories are actually by design. “It's not a happenstance that brands operate in places where the labor laws are weak, and enforcement is even weaker,” Barenblat explains. “That's how they're able to set up this predatory purchasing model. And in many ways, get away with it from a human rights standpoint.”
Cline adds, "It’s important to note that canceling orders was a preemptive move on the part of the fashion industry — and it’s one that hasn’t been mirrored to the same scale in any other industry. It demonstrated how really broken the fashion industry is and the systemic nature of the problems. Only in fashion would companies who usually present themselves as ethical try to get away with this.”
Brands looked at the disruption to the global market, assumed that they would lose money, and decided to push some of those losses on to the workers — mainly so they could show shareholders that they were financially stable. “If you go back to earnings reports from that time period, you'll have brands on record talking about supply chain savings, which is really code for, ‘We didn't pay the workers,’” Barenblat says.
Pay Up was a grassroots online-only organizing campaign that centered on people, mainly young women, pressuring brands on social media, either through leaving comments on IG posts or sharing images of themselves holding a “Pay Up” sign. Thanks to the campaign, many of the brands have finally paid their workers, resulting in $22 billion of that original $40 billion being recouped.
Almost a year has passed since the Pay Up campaign began — so what’s changed? The group expanded, forming a coalition platform PayUp Fashion, which has teamed up with garment worker organizations like AWAJ Foundation and the Garment Worker Center, as well as consumer NGOs like Remake, Extinction Rebellion, and Fashion Revolution.
Pay Up Fashion is now a long-term campaign for fashion industry reform. The key tenets of that reform are The 7 Actions — Pay Up, Keep Workers Safe, Go Transparent, Give Workers Center Stage, Sign Enforceable Contracts, End Starvation Wages, and Help Pass Laws. Written alongside two garment workers-turned union leaders, Ashila Dandeniya, founder of Stand Up Lanka, and Nazma Akter, founder of AWAJ Foundation, the actions campaign for systemic change that centers people, not brands.
“A lot of what we're talking about is real radical transparency, not transparency, that brands control,” Barenblat says. The campaign calls on brands to clearly publish data on every step of their supply chain, to pay workers a living wage, ensure their safety in the workplace, and join consumers in a push for wider regulation to the industry. “For too long, the brands are the ones who've controlled the narrative. And Pay Up Fashion is really here to disrupt the narrative and give workers center stage.”
The message is clear — the current fashion system is broken and it needs to change. The reality is that, due to a combination of weakened unions, lax labor laws, and an influx of outsourcing, the supply chain has become so complicated and so removed from brands that a lot of them don’t even know where their clothes come from, whether that’s on purpose or not. “I think it's important to say [that], when asking about labor rights, when brands tell you, ‘Well, we don't know,’ it's not that they don't know, it's that they don't want to know,” Barenblat explains. "The more you trace your supply chain, the uglier it gets."
The main takeaway from the campaign though is one of hope. Pay Up started at the same time as lockdowns began spreading across the world. It’s hard to remember now, but at the time, there was a strange feeling of possibility. The world as we knew it was over and we had a chance to shape what would happen next. A year on, much of that optimism has faded as the pandemic has exposed and deepened inequality over racial and class lines. However, while there are brands that still haven’t paid up, what the campaign has been able to achieve has been unparalleled. Barenblat says that in her time working in labor activism, “it's unheard of, that you can get so many large brands to come to the table.”
The success of Pay Up shows that we do have the power to make a difference; that, after the pandemic, we don’t have to go back to business as usual. Brands didn’t pay up because the government told them to, they did so because people like you and me said that what they were doing was unacceptable.
Pay Up proves that change is coming, whether the fashion industry is ready or not.
If you want to get involved in the Pay Up Campaign, go here and donate to a relief fund for garment workers here. If you're looking to shop in a way that aligns better with your values, Remake is compiling a list of brands that are transparent about business practices in its Brand Directory.