Fast Fashion & the Rights of Garment Factory Workers

Garment factory workers in developing countries receive low wages, often work in hazardous conditions and have few legal protections or ways to enforce their human rights.

“The phenomenon of low-cost and instantly available clothes… is both a social and ecological disaster.
“Although fast fashion has given people in developed countries the possibility to wear watered-down runway fashions for a fraction of the designer price tag, the overproduction required to constantly satisfy consumers has also severely impacted tens of millions of people in the rest of the world.”Jan Tomes, Deutsch Welle journalist.

According to Oxfam: “Buyers pressure factories to deliver quality products with ever-shorter lead times. Most factories just don’t have the tools and expertise to manage this effectively, so they put the squeeze on the workers. It’s the only margin they have to play with.” 

The Business of Fashion: Price pressure is driving some companies to turn a blind eye when subcontractors choose unsafe factories, putting reputations on the line and risking the lives of workers. Now, that’s an unsustainable model. It’s bad for business — and it’s bad for humanity.

Here it is, the post we all knew was coming. How can you have a blog about fashion industry ethics and NOT talk about sweatshops?

To be honest, I’ve been putting off this post because it’s such a HUGE topic and I knew I would get caught up doing heaps of research and drowning in information ’cause there’s just so much out there.

This is by no means a comprehensive examination of this topic and I would really encourage you to do some further reading.

Some background:

In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed 1,129 workers, shocking the world. It prompted calls for fashion brands to take more responsibility for garment factory working conditions in developing countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar.

rana-plaza-building-inline
Rana Plaza building collapse, 2013. via takepart.com

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Click here to watch a video that provides a much better overview of this issue than I ever could.

(The video is from a 2015 episode of ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’. It goes for 17 minutes but I promise it’s entertaining!)

Despite the Rana Plaza collapse drawing more attention to workers’ rights, according to recent reports, not much has improved for garment factory workers in the four years since.

exploring-bangladeshs-garment-industry-on-the-anniversary-of-the-rana-plaza-body-image-1492076311
An informal factory in Old Dhaka, Bangladesh. Informal factories are unregistered companies producing garments for the local and sometimes Indian market. In most of these factories, there are no labour inspectors and they receive much less attention from the international community. Many factories are non-compliant with regards to anti-child labor legislation. via broadly.vice.com

According to a study published by New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, 3,425 garment factory inspections have taken place in Bangladesh since 2015 but only eight factories passed them.

In 2014, four Cambodian garment factory workers were shot dead by police during protests demanding wage increases.

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via: https://www.rt.com/news/cambodia-garment-protest-dead-112/

What’s been happening lately?

On April 1 2017, a factory in Karachi, Pakistan, caught fire. Two weeks later, two people died when there was an explosion in an unregistered sweatshop in Cambodia.

In February 2017, workers demanding better conditions and benefits destroyed the production line of a Chinese-owned factory in Myanmar making clothes for Swedish fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), in one of the most violent labour disputes in the country in years”.

In response to the protests, H&M said it “cannot unilaterally require individual suppliers raise wages”.

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Myanmar factory workers. via The Myanmar Times

Myanmar’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, which was involved in mediation between workers and employers, said it was looking to amend laws to improve the legal framework for disputes.

According to a recent report from Asia Times, Myanmar’s textile industry currently employs more than 300,000 workers and is growing fast.

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Workers on the production line at a garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar. via frontiermyanmar.net

Myanmar has become attractive to global apparel brands such as H&M and US retailer Gap Inc following the easing of economic sanctions by the US and the EU.

Myanmar also has a lower minimum wage than neighbouring garment producing hubs such as Vietnam and Cambodia.

myanmar-map
Myanmar highlighted in green.

According to the Asia Times report:

Myanmar labor law allows for the payment of outright poverty wages, sets the minimum age for employment at 14 years and puts up barriers for workers to join and form unions and to engage in collective actions.”

Workers are generally unaware of their rights and few garment factories are unionized.”

“Efforts of workers to form unions are often met with repercussions. Union leaders and activists have been dismissed and blacklisted, preventing them from finding new jobs.”

“The legal minimum wage is a pitiful US$2.65 per day.”

“New workers are frequently paid below this minimum as Myanmar law allows for employers to pay workers apprentice or probation wages at 50% or 75% during the first six months of employment.”

“To earn a living, they work for long hours, sometimes for up to 11 hours a day.”

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Employees work at a garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar. via rfa.org

“In peak periods, workers sometimes are forced to do unpaid overtime.”

“It often happens that salaries are withheld when workers cannot work due to illness.”

Workers have very few opportunities to file complaints and get redress.”

According to Oxfam: “The sad fact is,  many workers in the global sportswear and garment industry are living in poverty — even though they have paid jobs.” 

What can we do?

  • Buy second hand/vintage.
  • If buying new clothing, try to buy from companies with transparent supply chains and ethical certification.

According to Oxfam: “If clothing carries the Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) label it means the garment was manufactured in Australia and the manufacturer has committed to ensuring that all of the people involved in its production received, as a minimum, the legally stated wage rates and conditions — known in Australia as award wages and conditions.

To find out which Australian made garments you can purchase to support fair working conditions, see the ECA list of accredited brands.  Brands include high-end fashion, corporate wear, casual street wear, sportswear and uniforms.”

Do you think/care about where your clothes are made?

Should fashion brands do more to protect garment factory workers’ rights?

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