The historic protests of the past month, set off by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, speak to distinct but intersecting forces of race and class in shaping inequality in American society and the economy.
The fashion, retail and beauty industries offer a cross-section of that inequality, experts said, where entrenched power dynamics are reflected in the continuing lack of diversity in leadership roles and ownership in brands, as well as in the precariousness of employment and wages for sales and manufacturing workers.
At every level, these disparities bear particular resonance for the livelihoods and agency of those in the industry who come from historically marginalized groups, including Black, Native American and LGBTQ employees, as well as other people of color and women, experts said.
“For whom are these fashions designed? What is a symbol of beauty? All of these things depend on who gets to have a voice, and, if you get to have a voice, if you get to have the capital to control these bigger issues,” said William Spriggs, a professor in the department of economics at Howard University.
“And so, they become a self-fulfilling reinforcement, when you deny people opportunities at these different levels at which the industry operates,” he said. “The role that fashion plays in this is not trivial at all. It’s very much an integral part of it.”
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the broader economic hardships dealt disproportionately to marginalized workers. Black workers overall are still experiencing distinctly higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts — 16.8 percent compared to 12.4 percent, according to this month’s employment numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As of 2019, enduring wage gaps based on gender left women making 85 cents to a dollar made by men, according to a report in February by the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank that studies the labor conditions of low- and middle-income workers. The ratio, of course, varies further based on race. The median wages of Black workers were about 76 percent those of the wages of white workers, according to the same report.
These disparities are often more existential for employees of color among retail’s working class. In 2015, an NAACP report on the retail industry found that poverty was significantly more prevalent among its Black and Latino workers than white counterparts, and that those former workers were also less likely to have management or supervisory roles.
Black workers in retail are now twice as likely to be living below the poverty line as their white counterparts, according to a statement this month by United for Respect, a worker-oriented nonprofit.
The pandemic has also thrown many other existing inequalities into sharper relief, experts said.
“Black Americans are disproportionately located in jobs that have high degrees of personal contact and personal service requirements,” said William Darity, a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.
“To the extent that those jobs are deemed essential, Black folks have to continue to hold those jobs, and will risk a higher degree of exposure to the coronavirus,” he said.
On the other side, nonessential retail jobs during the pandemic have also been subject to layoffs and furloughs. In their initial bankruptcy filings this year, retailers including J. Crew, which had furloughed some 11,000 employees, and J.C. Penney, which had furloughed some 77,000 employees, described taking such measures to manage the lack of sales during government-mandated store closures.
“For many Black working-class people, either you lose your job, or you stay in a job where you have a much greater risk of being exposed to the infectious disease,” Darity said.
The moment has also drawn attention to workers’ access to paid sick leave and hazard pay, as well as their ongoing efforts to advocate for safer working conditions. Among those on the frontlines of such efforts is the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents some 100,000 workers across the country’s supply chain in food processing, shipping and fashion retail. The RWDSU also represents some 6,300 employees at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, in addition to workers at other retailers including Zara and H&M.
The union is in contract negotiations with Macy’s, with discussions on calls by retail workers for further safety protections beyond what the company had wanted to do, and for additional contract language about pandemics and what would happen in case of another outbreak, according to RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum.
A Macy’s representative said in a statement Tuesday that the retailer has implemented “enhanced cleaning and social distancing protocols to reduce physical contact between customers and colleagues.” It has also installed features including plexiglass barriers, added “sanitation stations” in the stores, and is providing employees with masks according to the representative.
Employees of color make up roughly 75 percent of the union’s membership at Macy’s, according to RWDSU’s representative. How much they earn depends on their role, commissions and experience. New hires generally start at just above minimum wage, while sales members earn roughly between $20 to $30 an hour on average, according to the representative.
“I’m very encouraged by this moment, and the changes happening regarding racial justice,” Appelbaum said.
“I also understand you cannot adequately deal with racial justice if you are not also providing economic justice to communities of color, and others who have been marginalized,” he said.
“I think that both the pandemic and the outcry over racial injustice, together exposed that there is a lot of economic inequality that needs to be addressed at this time,” Appelbaum added.
Editor’s Note: This article marks the launch of a new regular WWD feature, Equal Measure, which will examine the issues of diversity, equality and the increasing movement for social change and how these impact the retail, beauty and fashion industries.