Navigating Fast Fashion's Legal Quandary: Labor Code Violations And Pandemic Implications

Khurana and Khurana


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The global garment industry, propelled by the rapid expansion of fast fashion, has revolutionized consumer trends but faces deep-rooted challenges, particularly in labor rights and supply chain transparency.
India Employment and HR
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The global garment industry, propelled by the rapid expansion of fast fashion, has revolutionized consumer trends but faces deep-rooted challenges, particularly in labor rights and supply chain transparency. India's textile sector, a significant contributor to the global market, grapples with issues of subcontracting and labor exploitation despite regulatory frameworks like the Contract Labor Regulation and Abolition Act 1970. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the industry's vulnerabilities, exposing garment workers to dire consequences like wage theft and food insecurity. The Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord offers a blueprint for enhancing workplace safety and labor standards and as India navigates the aftermath of the pandemic, prioritizing worker welfare and adopting measures akin to the Accord could reshape the industry towards greater equity and sustainability on a global scale.

Keywords-Garment industry, Fast fashion, Labor rights, Supply chain transparency, Pandemic impact, Contract Labor Regulation Act, Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord, Sustainability in fashion

Introduction- The Fast Fashion Landscape

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the global garment industry witnessed a transformative shift propelled by the meteoric rise of fast fashion1. It was characterized by rapid production cycles, low-cost manufacturing, and trend-driven designs with fast fashion captivating consumers worldwide with its promise of affordable and constantly evolving clothing options. This era marked a peak of unprecedented growth, with soaring demand fueling the expansion of supply chains across continents. In contemporary times, customers have come to anticipate the availability of inexpensive yet fashionable clothing bi-weekly, reflecting the industry's emphasis on short product life cycles2. However, the unrelenting quest for rapid fashion creates an unsustainable cycle typified by the constant churn of new trends. Unfortunately, this strategy leads to a number of problems, such as dangerous working conditions, the collapse of domestic manufacturing, and a drop in product quality.

Regulatory Frameworks and Accountability in India

India's textile industry stands as one of the largest pillars of its economy, boasting significant contributions to GDP, with the Gross Value Added (GVA) anticipated to display a consistent annual growth rate of 9% from the fiscal year of 2021 to 20283. Globally, India ranks prominently, second only to China in cotton yarn and fabric production, and fifth in synthetic fibers and yarns. The outsourcing of garment production to subcontractors emerges as a prevalent practice, particularly among fast fashion brands seeking to capitalize on India's abundant labor resources and comparatively lower wage levels. 4The Code on Wages 20195 delineates the roles and responsibilities within this contractual framework, defining subcontractors as entities undertaking specific production tasks or supplying contract labor on behalf of the contractor, who, in turn, serves as the intermediary between the fashion brand and the garment workers. The subcontractor, functioning as the executor of the contractual obligations, operates within a complex web of supply chain relationships, often shielding fashion brands from direct accountability for labor practices and conditions within the production facilities. This lack of direct oversight and transparency in the supply chain complicates efforts to ensure fair labor standards and holds brands accountable for the working conditions of garment workers.6

The Contract Labour Regulation and Abolition Act 19707 stands as a significant piece of legislation governing the operations of the fashion industry in India, particularly concerning the employment of contract laborers. Under this Act, workmen employed by or through a contractor are safeguarded, and the principal employer is held liable for ensuring basic amenities such as canteens, restrooms, and safe drinking water within the establishment. In the landmark case of Gammon India Ltd. and ors. v. Union of India,8 the Supreme Court highlighted the employer's duty not only to pay wages but also to provide essential amenities for the health and welfare of laborers. This decision emphasized that such expenditures are integral to fulfilling the employer's responsibilities and cannot be dismissed as unnecessary restrictions.

The Pandemic's Toll on the Garment Industry

The onset of the COVID-19 crisis exposed the seemingly invincible facade of the garment industry, laying bare the inherent fragility of its supply chain dynamics. As the pandemic swept across the globe, Asia emerged as the epicenter of production and vulnerability within the garment sector. The pandemic's disruptive force exposed acute vulnerabilities that reverberated from factory floors to global brands, fundamentally reshaping the garment production and consumption landscape. As the pandemic unfolded, the fashion industry abruptly canceled billions of pounds of clothing orders, plunging manufacturers and workers into turmoil. Factories faced the grim reality of brands refusing to accept completed garments, leading to widespread closures and economic devastation. The sudden halt in orders sent shockwaves through the supply chain, leaving garment workers in Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Lesotho, Haiti, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Cambodia, and Bangladesh grappling with dire consequences. In the wake of the pandemic, interviews conducted by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) shockingly showed how most of the surveyed workers, many of whom produced clothing for some of the world's largest fashion brands, reported going hungry9. The grim reality of daily food shortages afflicted nearly a quarter of those interviewed, painting a stark picture of the human toll created by the fashion industry's decisions in the face of the pandemic.

Reports submitted by organizations like the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AFWA) shed light on the alarming impact of "wage theft" perpetrated by major fashion brands, resulting in a significant fall in wages and dire poverty among millions of garment workers across Asia.10Fashion firms rapidly canceled billion-dollar garment orders during the pandemic, which had dire humanitarian ramifications for workers in their supply chains. Numerous employees had layoffs, hours cut, or unpaid months, which made the industry's already low pay even worse. Despite the protections provided by national labor laws, the need to find alternative employment, the possibility of impending destitution, and the insufficient enforcement of labor rules by authorities frequently prevented garment workers from seeking compensation for lost pay11. While legal precedents such as the Gammon India case underscore the need for employers to fulfill their basic duties toward workers, the pandemic underscored the fragility of labor protections and the prevalence of exploitation within the fast fashion industry

Conclusion- The Way Forward for India?

How India chooses to prioritize the safety and rights of garment workers, especially women workers, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, will significantly shape the future of its garment industry. Initiatives like the Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord12, born out of the tragic Rana Plaza collapse, offer a compelling model for improving workplace safety and labor rights. By embracing legally binding agreements, rigorous safety inspections, worker empowerment, and transparency measures, the Accord fosters collaboration among all stakeholders. Countries like India stand to benefit greatly from adopting similar measures and by addressing systemic challenges, enhancing worker safety, ensuring fair wages, and promoting industry accountability, India can play a pivotal role in creating a more ethical and sustainable global garment industry.


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9 Kelly A, 'Garment Workers Going Hungry as Fallout from Cancelled Orders Takes Toll – Report' (the Guardian3 December 2020) accessed 17 February 2024

10 Kelly A, 'Top Fashion Brands Face Legal Challenge over Garment Workers' Rights in Asia' (the Guardian9 July 2021),skill%2C%20and%20continued%20employment%E2%80%9D. accessed 17 February 2024

11 Speed A, 'The Impact of Fast Fashion and International Law on Workers and the Environment' (2021)

12 The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety' (The Bangladesh Accord2024) accessed 17 February 2024

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