Legal complaints are being filed against some of the world’s largest fashion brands in major garment-producing countries across Asia in a groundbreaking attempt to hold the global fashion industry legally accountable for human rights violations in the countries where their clothing is made.
The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), a pan-Asian labour rights group, says it is using legal challenges to argue that global clothing brands should be considered joint employers, along with their suppliers, under national laws and be held accountable for alleged wage violations during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two of these complaints have already been filed with the authorities in India and Sri Lanka, with further complaints pending in Indonesia and Pakistan.
In India, AFWA and local labour unions have filed a legal complaint against H&M to the labour department in Bengaluru. The complaint asks that H&M be held jointly liable for alleged labour abuses that took place in 2020 at a supplier factory, where it claims the brand “has total economic control over the workers’ subsistence, skill, and continued employment”.
A similar legal complaint has been submitted to the labour commissioner in Sri Lanka against Levi Strauss, Columbia Sporting Company, Asics, DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger claiming they are acting as “shadow employers” at a supplier factory in Katunayake where workers lost their jobs and did not receive full pay.
The central claims and arguments of the legal complaints were based on extensive interviews and analysis that AFWA conducted for a new report it launched this week.
The report looked at the impact of “wage theft” in six garment-producing countries – in which it claimed that many of the world’s largest fashion brands were jointly responsible for a fall or “gap” in wages, and the resulting poverty and destitution of millions of garment workers across Asia.
It argues that the actions of fashion brands during the pandemic in cancelling billions of dollars of clothing orders directly resulted in severe humanitarian consequences for workers in their supply chains.
Many workers lost their jobs, had their hours cut or were sent home without pay for months at a time. The pre-existing poverty-level wages of garment workers across Asia did not provide any form of safety blanket that would have allowed them to tide over loss of employment and wages during the pandemic.
The report also claims that even though workers’ rights were protected under national laws, most garment workers did not have the access or power to seek redress for lost wages during the pandemic due to the need to find other work, the threat of destitution and low enforcement of labour laws by the authorities.
One worker from Sri Lanka, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she was unable to feed her children after her hours were cut in the summer of 2020.
“Our employer told us that the brands had cancelled orders so we were forced to take holidays and our hours were reduced,” she said. “Already, I was struggling to survive on my wages and relied on overtime to cover costs, and so I found that I couldn’t afford to buy enough food for the family. Every day I was afraid, wondering how we would survive.”
Ashim Roy, an Indian trade unionist and AFWA member, said that legal action was the only way to ensure that brands were forced to put workers’ rights over profit.
“After the carnage that was unleashed on workers last year we wanted to examine the possibility of holding brands legally accountable instead of only having the leverage or threat of reputational damage,” he said.
“We are confident that in some countries there is very strong case law for joint liability, but it has never been tested for a brand and a supplier. Our core argument is that the reality of fashion supply chains is that brands do not just buy garments. They determine and control every step in the production process of that garment being made and so they should not be able to continue to argue that the workers who make their clothes do not work for them.”
In a statement on the legal complaint, H&M said: “Although it is our suppliers who employ the garment workers, we as a large company have a responsibility to do our utmost to contribute to a good dialogue between trade unions and suppliers to help them come to an agreement if conflicts arise.”
It also said that in the specific case referred to in the legal complaint, the workers were paid “in line with legal regulations”.
Columbia Sportswear Company said that it had received no evidence of a complaint to the labour commissioner. It said it did not cancel orders or re-negotiate product costs for open orders, adding: “We believe that the strategies we enacted were able to reduce the impacts of the global pandemic on our supply chain partners and their employees.”
Asics also said it had not received notice of the legal complaint, and said that it did not agree with the argument that it had a joint business relationship with its suppliers.
It said all workers at the supplier factory named in the lawsuit were fully compensated in line with local labour laws and it did not cancel any orders during the pandemic.
Levi Strauss declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said it had taken full responsibility for orders placed before the onset of the pandemic and had provided more than £1m in grants to organisations supporting garment workers.
DKNY and PVH, the owner of Tommy Hilfiger, did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Cancer care can’t stop’: flood-hit Assam hospital uses boats to reach patients | Global development
When the flood water roared into her home in Assam, Jyoti Bora* saw the morphine pills she takes for head and neck cancer swept away along with all her belongings. At the relief camp she was evacuated to, Bora, who uses a wheelchair, found a boat to take her to the hospital to get more medication.
But when she got to Cacher cancer hospital and research centre she found the entrance flooded – the water was 1.5 metres high. A hospital orderly and a nurse were dispatched in a raft, made from planks of plywood tied to tyre inner tubes, to collect her.
“Initially, she refused to get on. She was very frightened. As it is she is frail. But she knew she could not manage without her morphine injection,” says her doctor, surgical oncologist and deputy director of Cacher, Ritesh Tapkire. “That’s how our outpatients have been coming for radiation, chemotherapy and pain relief for the past week.”
About 5 million people in Assam, in India’s north-east, have been affected by the worst floods in decades, which began in April and show little significant signs of easing. Entire villages have been submerged. More than 114,000 hectares (280,000 acres) of crops have been damaged and 5,000 livestock washed away. The army and relief workers are providing food, medicines and drinking water to 780 camps for those displaced by the flooding.
Cacher hospital, which has 150 beds and treats 20,000 patients a year, got off fairly lightly. One building was flooded at the end of June, along with the nurses’ hostel, but the wards were spared as they are built on higher ground. Radiation and chemotherapy have continued for the 100 patients admitted to the hospital, although a lack of anaesthesia meant only four operations were carried out in a week, instead of the usual 20.
Since the floods, the big issue for staff has been ensuring patients continue receiving treatment. People travel to Cacher hospital from all over the state. It is run by a non-profit and most patients are on low incomes and receive free or subsidised treatment. The north-east of India is known as the “cancer capital” of the country, and cases are double the national average. Lifestyle is a big factor – high consumption of alcohol, betel nut and tobacco – combined with low awareness of symptoms, late detection and a lack of oncologists and facilities to diagnose and treat cases.
Cacher staff have been calling patients who have not kept appointments to check they have enough medication. They have also got into boats to collect people from their homes and bring them to the hospital, and made rafts to take them inside. They have also set up a makeshift outpatient department (OPD) on a patch of dry land outside the hospital to give out basic medicines and pain killers. Morphine injections given here too, in the middle of swirling flood waters, for patients too scared of the raft ride into the hospital.
“A patient with multiple myeloma came for her chemotherapy session and she refused to get on to the raft. She was petrified. Fortunately, her chemotherapy was only one hour long, did not need close monitoring or have side-effects, so after checking her vitals, we administered it on the dry patch,” says Tapkire.
Last Monday, the niece of an elderly woman with metastatic breast cancer called the hospital in tears, asking for help. The hospital director, Dr Ravi Kannan, dispatched a team from the hospital to collect her. The woman had to be lowered from the second floor of her home, where she and her family had sought safety, into a boat and taken to the hospital.
The State Disaster Response Force has now given the hospital inflatable boats and rafts to make ferrying patients to and from the hospital a little easier.
Kannan is worried people are missing out on treatment. On a normal day, the OPD has between 150 and 200 patients. In the past week, it has seen only 40 people. “We need to reach out to every patient who has not been able to come. Cancer care cannot be interrupted. It bothers us no end,” he says.
Ranjita Singha, 60, who has cervical cancer, ran out of morphine and was unable to reach the hospital. Her daughter, Babita Singha, is her main carer.
“When the doctor called, I told them that my mother had only one pill left. They arrived here by boat to give me more pills and also gave her a morphine injection for immediate relief,” says Babita.
The woman with metastatic breast cancer who was rescued from the second floor of her home died the next day. Kannan says he wondered if bringing her to the hospital was the wrong decision. Until he received a note from her niece.
“For days they had sat by her, dreading her dying, surrounded by water, in the dark in the middle of the night. By bringing her to hospital, where she had light and medical care; the niece said we had spared the family the agony of living with such a painful memory,” says Kannan.
* Name changed
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Eduardo Zapateiro: Colombian army chief resigns to avoid appearing beside president-elect Petro at inauguration | International
General Eduardo Zapateiro, the commander of the Colombian army, resigned on Tuesday to avoid appearing beside president-elect Gustavo Petro at his inauguration on August 7. “After 40 years in service, I bid farewell to the Colombian people, giving my heartfelt thanks to all my soldiers,” he announced.
Zapateiro, who comes from the hardline wing of the armed forces, has been a vocal opponent of the leftist leader. During the presidential election campaign, the army commander controversially spoke out against Petro on Twitter – a move that was condemned as unconstitutional. Incumbent President Iván Duque, however, defended Zapateiro, arguing that the general was sharing his point of view – not taking a political stand.
Zapateiro announced his retirement just one day after Petro told EL PAÍS that he planned to change the leadership of the armed forces. “This leadership was deeply imbued by the political line of the executive [of Iván Duque] now reaching the end of its term. But this path is unsustainable and turns our security forces into a victim, as they have been led to perpetrate grotesque violations of human rights. What we are proposing will make our security forces democratically stronger,” he said in the interview.
The Colombian general has often raised eyebrows with his behavior. Following the death of Jhon “Popeye” Jairo Velásquez, a henchman for drug lord Pablo Escobar who had killed dozens of people, Zapateiro sent his condolences to his family and said he was saddened by his loss. To this day, no one has explained why the general made these statements.
In Colombia, the government and the military have a complex relationship. The country has fought for decades against guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ongoing armed struggle placed the military in a position of great power. Indeed until the 1990s, the armed forces controlled the Defense Ministry. As in many other countries, the Colombian armed forces are a conservative group that is highly suspicious of leftist ideas. The peace agreement, for example, that ended five decades of conflict with the FARC, divided Colombia’s troops. Zapateiro initially supported the accords, but over time, became an outspoken critic.
What kind of relationship Petro will form with the military remains to be seen. As a politician, he has been very critical of the army’s focus on targeting internal enemies. The Colombian armed forces have been fighting against guerrilla groups and drug gangs for decades. During this conflict, they have often overstepped their bounds and violated human rights.
In the early 2000s, a scandal broke in Colombia when it was revealed that military officers were carrying out summary executions of innocent civilians and listing them as guerrillas killed in combat. These so-called “false positives” took place in different regions of the country between 2002 and 2008 and were used as proof of performance by military units and to collect “kill fees” awarded by the government of former president Álvaro Uribe. A total of 6,402 innocent people are estimated to have been killed in these summary executions. Just a few months ago, several civilians also died in suspicious circumstances during an army operation in Putumayo.
With Petro elected as Colombia’s first leftist president in modern history, it was no longer tenable to have Zapeteiro leading the armed forces. The Colombian newspaper El Espectador published an editorial to that effect, with the headline: “Isn’t it time to retire, General Zapateiro?”
Petro aims to tackle corruption within the army, which he believes is home to extremist factions. “There are currents in the far right that must be eliminated. Some are talking openly about coups and things like that. But look, within the army there are no factions friendly to Petro, there are factions friendly to the Constitution,” Petro told EL PAÍS.
Canada should focus on abortion access not legislation, advocates say | Global development
Abortion advocates are warning that the recent US supreme court ruling overturning Roe v Wade will empower anti-choice groups in Canada to push for restricted access, making a settled matter appear controversial in a country where nearly 80% of people are pro-choice.
A key anti-choice strategy in Canada revolves around enacting abortion legislation – an idea that has been gaining traction amid the fallout of the US court ruling. There is currently no abortion law in Canada, making it the only country in the world where the procedure is totally free of legal restrictions.
“There’s a lot of talk right now about whether or not the Canadian government should pass a proactive law protecting our right to abortion – a pre-emptive strike, if you will. That would be a big mistake,” said Daphne Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
Gilbert and other abortion advocates say that while enshrining abortion rights may sound progressive, the opposite is true: consolidating rules would make it easier for anti-choice legislators to retract abortion rights if ever they found themselves in a majority. Last year, 81 Conservative MPs (and one independent) voted for anti-choice legislation.
And while the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, promised Canadians after Roe that his government would “always stand up for your right to choose”, advocates argue that may not always be true.
That’s why the country should focus on entrenching people’s rights by expanding abortion access, said Gilbert.
Since it became legal in a 1988 supreme court ruling, abortion in Canada has been designated as a medical service like any other, on par with procedures like X-rays and blood tests. But that doesn’t make it easy to get – especially in remote, religious or conservative parts of the country.
In 2014, Sarah (who asked to remain anonymous) sought an abortion on Prince Edward Island (PEI) – a province of 30,000 that, at the time, did not have a single publicly operating abortion provider.
It took Sarah a month to finally secure a provider – five hours away, in another province. The trip incurred travel and lodging costs, but the procedure itself was covered by the healthcare authority.
“The idea that anybody has to travel to take care of something that you should be able to get done close to home – it’s not fine,” said Sarah. Abortion care only arrived on PEI in 2017, after activists sued the provincial government for acting unconstitutionally.
Although there is no federal law, each province’s medical college sets its own guidelines on abortion, including gestational age limits for use of the abortion pill.
Those guidelines are shaped by the skills and training available in each province, said Martha Paynter, an abortion care provider in Nova Scotia and the author of the new book Abortion to Abolition: Reproductive Health and Justice in Canada.
But there is also a political dimension to providing abortion care that prevents some doctors and nurse practitioners from taking it up.
“More people could be doing it than are doing it,” said Paynter. “We as educators – I’m a prof at a nursing school – have the responsibility to teach in every medical and nursing program how to do this care, and hardly [any school] does it.”
Paynter is the creator of the country’s first university abortion course, at Dalhousie University, which is open to students across medical, nursing and other health programs with the purpose of inspiring future health workers to integrate abortion access into primary care.
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists offers an online course to teach professionals how to prescribe and manage medical abortion.
But most students and healthcare professionals are not required to learn about how medication and surgical abortion work – and many choose to abstain because they are afraid to enter the political fray around abortion.
According to Gilbert, that means a lot of primary care providers stay wilfully uninformed.
“A lot of doctors just aren’t political people. They’re scientists, and they don’t see the politics behind some of their care,” she said.
Further complicating access is the fact that many Canadians are unaware that nurse practitioners in the country are permitted to prescribe the abortion pill and refer patients to surgical abortion providers – or that most patients can self-refer directly to an abortion provider.
Addressing these issues is critical to expanding existing access to medication and surgical abortion, said Paynter and Gilbert.
In 2017, Natalie (also a pseudonym) discovered she was pregnant while visiting her parents in a small town in northern Alberta. After one doctor at a local walk-in clinic told her abortion was murder, she demanded an appointment with a different doctor.
That doctor told her that there was no such thing as medical abortion. “He looked me in the face and said, ‘That doesn’t exist,’” she said.
Mifegymiso – otherwise known as the abortion pill – was approved by Health Canada in 2015, but had only recently hit the market when Natalie found herself at the doctor’s office.
“I know it exists. It’s literally the front page of the news,” she told him.
Still, she went away empty-handed. She was only able to get an abortion after returning to her home province of New Brunswick, where only three hospitals and one clinic provide abortion. Natalie went to the clinic, where she paid $800 for a surgical abortion – a cost incurred because the province refuses to pay for abortions performed outside of hospitals.
New Brunswick is currently being sued for its restriction of abortion.
Stories like those of Sarah and Natalie show how abortion remains inaccessible in Canada, despite its federal legal standing.
“Our greatest problems really come in terms of provinces and what they may do to restrict access to abortion in light of what I think is now going to be a really emboldened anti-choice movement,” said Gilbert.
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