In the last few years, with the world’s focus on sustainability and climate change, it has become clear that fashion is an exploitative industry. From its toll on water resources to the growing piles of clothing ending up in landfills; but most of all, the welfare of the people who make the very clothes that the industry depends on. Tragedies like the Rana Plaza building collapse have propelled us to confront fashion’s dark underbelly, a reality that goes beyond glamorous catwalks, flashing lights and pretty store fronts. Campaigns like Fashion Revolution’s #WhoMadeMyClothes have brought the spotlight on the welfare of these workers (mostly women).
However, when it comes to the exact nature of the exploitation of these women, the details get a bit hazy. Even when we ask who made my clothes? Are there answers? And who answers? Are they female workers? And if so, are these women being paid? And if yes, are they being paid enough? Are they forced to work? Maybe even at gunpoint? To what extent is the involvement of the brands that we buy? And how bad is the situation really?
It is to these questions and more that the What She Makes Campaign has done a remarkable job of providing answers. Set up by non-profit charitable organisation Oxfam, the What She Makes campaign demands big clothing brands pay the women who make our clothes a living wage. The campaign has set up a pledge and so far, 109,000 people have joined the campaign. The campaign also operates a company tracker that rates companies on their progress towards paying living wages to female garment workers.
One of the most notable achievements of this campaign is the publication of the “Made in Poverty” report in February this year. The report published by Oxfam Australia, is the first in-depth look into the supply chain of Australian brands. The objective of the research was to examine the impact of low wages on the conditions and wellbeing of garment workers and their families working in the factories supplying to major brands in Australia.
Oxfam focused its research on the garment trade in Vietnam and Bangladesh; two countries that accounted for almost 10% of all the clothes imported into Australia in 2017. Working with the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies and the Institute for Workers and Trade Unions in Vietnam, Oxfam interviewed more than 470 workers across both countries and held more than 130 interviews with factory owners, managers, union leaders, all of whom were part of the supply chain of at least one iconic Australian brand at the time.
The result is a disturbing picture of an industry propped up on poverty wages; low wages in which workers are unable to meet basic needs no matter how hard they work.
Some of the key findings of the report include:
• 9 out of 10 workers interviewed in Bangladesh could not afford enough food for themselves and their families, forcing them to regularly skip meals and eat inadequately, or go into debt.
• 72% of workers interviewed in Bangladesh factories supplying to major brands in Australia, and 53% in Vietnam, could not afford medical treatment when they get sick or injured.
• 76% of workers interviewed in Bangladesh factories supplying to major brands in Australia had no running water inside their home, and more than 40% in Vietnam reported worrying about having to use well or rain water.
• In Bangladesh, one in three workers interviewed were separated from their children, with nearly 80% of those cases due to a lack of adequate income.
But the report goes further than just reporting figures and research. It delved head-first into the lives of these women with case studies and stories. In Bangladesh for instance, we see Shima who could not afford adequate treatment for an infection that has cost her an entire foot. In Vietnam, Minh has to choose between building her family a toilet and sacrificing her son’s education.
Put simply, the voices of those most affected by the harsh realities of the fashion industry were actually heard throughout this campaign for a change. Oxfam goes over and beyond just using colourful pictures of garment workers as content for a glossy report and for this they earn thanks and respect.
All these stories of course can be changed by the payment of living wages to these workers. Living wages, according to Oxfam,
“is a simple concept. It is the idea that the lowest wage paid to a full-time worker needs to cover the essential basics — enough nutritious food, decent housing, healthcare, clothing, transportation, utilities, childcare, education, and other essential needs, as well as some savings for the future and unexpected events. A living wage is not a luxury. It is a minimum that all working people should be paid if they are to escape poverty. A living wage should be earned in a standard work week (no more than 48 hours) by a worker and be sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family.”
From undercutting prices and refusal to commit to long-term relationships, to creating short lead times and imposing fines, the purchasing brands and their customers are without a doubt the culprits for the conditions of these women. According to a factory owner quoted in the report, “[The] local market is losing, workers are losing, but the buyer is the ultimate gainer”.
While the report hesitates to state emphatically that these brands perpetuate these ills on their workers deliberately, it is the only sensible conclusion that can be reached. More so as the report points out, that most of these big box Australian brands possess Code of Conducts by which they operate. What else does their continued operation outside the parameters of these ‘Codes’ show but a willingness to look the other way in pursuit of profits?
The biggest lesson from this report is that we cannot depend on these brands to become more responsible and effect the change needed because frankly, they neither seem to have the conscience nor the will to do so. They may make repeated commitments to living wages, but when the curtain is drawn, almost everyone reverts to the modus operandi of ‘business as usual’. Indeed, a 2017 Oxfam study on living wages (and made available to the industry, thanks again Oxfam!) shows that if brands commit to paying living wages, the prices of their wares will be raised by only one percent. In the time since that study, the deplorable conditions of these women have persisted while the profits and revenues of Australian brands have galloped ahead.
Now it’s easy to lay all the blame squarely at the foot of the brands, one must admit that the host countries are as much to blame. Isn’t it the responsibility of a government to set and enforce economic policies such as minimum wages and ensure that its people are not exploited? Thus, the conditions of these women represent in the first place, a failing on the part of the government as it relates to its people.
Where the host country is a third world or developing nation, this responsibility of the government then must also be viewed through the wider lens of the economic realities of the state. As I wrote in a piece about ethical wages, these developing nations need foreign investments to thrive and so, they steadily seek the favor of corporations, brands and markets around the world (and thus enter the opportunistic brands once again).
In Bangladesh for instance, the fashion industry provides employment to approximately four million workers —the majority of whom are women. In the fiscal year 2017–2018, Bangladesh’s total export was worth A$49.86 billion, while export of ready made garments (RMG) alone was A$41.63 billion, which is 83.5% of the total export. One of their key offerings, as an incentive to the brands, is the availability of an affordable labour force (which in reality translates as a cheap labour force). This means the scales are already rigged against the workers, by the combined workings of their own desperate government and the profit-driven demands of foreign brands.
Looking closely at Vietnam, one realises that the slightly improved welfare of the workers is not necessarily a result of better practices by the purchasing brands. Rather, it is because of the generally better welfare of the country’s economy. For instance, 89% of workers in Bangladesh reported that their wages were not enough to cover the cost of their children’s education. This number is much lower in comparison to Vietnam’s 20% because its government provides free education to as many children in the country as it can.
If situations are to improve then, the governments of the sourcing countries have to step up and meet their responsibilities. The current conditions are truly abysmal, but there are slivers of hope in the recommendations of the Oxfam report to the Australian government.
The report recommended that the government develop and implement a national action plan on business and human rights, legislate to protect human rights and invest in educating companies about human rights responsibilities and invest in global solutions.
If these are implemented, there could be a near global synergy dedicated towards improving working conditions. For instance, a situation where the Australian government commits to genuine partnership with these sourcing countries and assures them of the continued patronage of Australian brands, even with improved standards and perhaps increased prices, would go a long way in improving the standards of living in the country.
An even better way forward would be the direct empowerment of these women perhaps through the provision of legal representation for these workers and their unions. The report recognizes and identifies that the ability of these women to organize and negotiate collectively is the best way to prevent exploitation. However, the ability of these women to organise is severely hampered by intimidation and fear of losing their jobs. In Bangladesh 53% of workers said their factory has a Participatory Committee for workers, but of these, more than 90% felt the committee was not effective or partially effective; 45% and said the committee was compromised by management.
From these figures it’s easy to see why factory owners still call the shots; a house divided in itself cannot stand. However, if these women knew that they had the backing of capable and independent bodies, they would be better inclined to work together for better treatment (and payments) without fear of losing their jobs.
We are long past the stage of blame-sharing; and thanks to campaigns such as these by Oxfam, we can peer more closely at all the details that make the ‘underbelly’ of the fashion industry complete. More than words, the reports of the Oxfam campaign is a call to action.
It’s solution time and we need all parties on board.
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Feature image taken by GMB Akash/Panos/OxfamAUS.