workersrights

Workers’ Rights in the Fashion Industry

A Reflection on the International Workers’ Day

As today we commemorate International Workers’ Day once again, it prompts us to pause and reflect on the state of workers’ rights within the fashion industry. International Workers’ Day is synonymous with Labour Day, annual holidays to celebrate the achievements of workers.

Some facts about workers’ rights in the fashion industry:

1. “Luxury brands show poor efforts to reduce forced labour.” (source KnowTheChain). Specifically, KnowTheChain evaluated fashion companies’ adherence to International Labour Organization standards in their supply chain, establishment of internal responsibilities to address forced labour risks, support for worker empowerment, and implementation of programs to address forced labour allegations. So, companies received scores ranging from zero to 100, with the average fashion company scoring 21. Luxury companies rank second lowest in average score among all sub-sectors, making them particularly flagrant offenders.
In short, among the luxury companies assessed:
LVMH: 6 out of 100
Prada: 9 out of 100
Kering: 23 out of 100
Only seven out of 20 disclosed the complete first tier of their suppliers, including names and addresses.

2. Alviero Martini: under investigation for starving wages.

3. Giorgio Armani Operations: put into receivership for labour exploitation.  Workers in Chinese-run workshops paid 2-3 euros/hour, judges say. Probe finds migrant workers eating, and sleeping in factories.

4. Zara and H&M‘s cotton suppliers: involved in land grabbing, illegal deforestation and human rights violations (source Earthsight). Also, this revelation is particularly alarming as it implicates Better Cotton, a certified sustainable cotton label.

5. Low wages made Bangladesh the second largest clothing exporter after China, developing a huge industry for the country. There are about four million garment workers, mostly women, whose wages are the lowest in the world. In addition, the inflation and the devaluation of the taka against the US dollar (30% from the beginning of 2023) created unsustainable conditions for workers. Specifically, garment workers in Bangladesh make clothes for large groups such as H&MZaraGapLevi’s, NextAsos, and New Look.

6. After the Jaba Garmindo factory bankruptcy in Indonesia, 2,000 Indonesian garment workers have fought for the $5.5 million legally owed in severance pay since 2015. The workers made clothes for Uniqlo and German fashion brand s.Oliver, among others. (source cleanclothes.org)

7. China is the biggest exporter of ready-made clothes, monopolising nearly 40% of the global garment industry. Driving China’s $187 billion garment trade are over 10 million garment workers. People who toil under oppressive and exploitative working conditions, mostly for high street brands. …While foreign brands’ business is booming, China bans the fundamental human right of workers to form and join independent trade unions. Driving a race to the bottom on wages and working conditions, brands expect low production prices and a compliant workforce and governments allow this along with factory owners out of fear of losing foreign business. Exploiting this arrangement is the Asian retail giant, UNIQLO. (source waronwant.org).

Conclusion: what about consumers’ role?

While we commemorate International Workers’ Day, we’re compelled to confront a shameful truth about workers’ rights in the fashion industry. In fact, workers are often regarded as nothing more than commodities that brands can exploit for their own profit. 

The absence of moral fabric within the industry is evident, as is the disregard shown by consumers who choose to ignore this issue despite the wealth of available information.

But why do people ignore human rights and still support these brands through their consumption choices?

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Protests in Bangladesh

How the fashion industry leads workers to starvation

Large protests are happening in Bangladesh, where garment workers demand higher wages. Following clashes with the police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets, four textile workers have died. Sadly, they paid with their own life the demand for better pay.

Our thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives, the dozens who ended up in hospitals and also those who still protest for a decent living.

The fashion industry & the poverty wage

Low wages made Bangladesh the second largest clothing exporter after China, developing a huge industry for the country. There are about four million garment workers, mostly women, whose wages are the lowest in the world. In addition, the inflation and the devaluation of the taka against the US dollar (30% from the beginning of 2023) created unsustainable conditions for workers.

According to the government, monthly pay would rise by 56,25% to 12,500 taka – 114 USD. Basically, they want to keep workers under the poverty line. But workers want more: “Prices are skyrocketing. We are just demanding decent pay. We will not return to work until our demands are met,” one of the protesters said. Isn’t it understandable? In fact, workers ask for 208 USD a month in pay.

Fashion and workers’ rights

Specifically, garment workers in Bangladesh make clothes for large groups such as H&M, Zara, Gap, and Levi’s. Brands like Next, Asos, New Look and Inditex (Zara) say they support workers. Which is good, but words aren’t enough; they must pay more! That’s how they can back workers for real.

About ten years after the Rana Plaza collapse, garment factories packed in a nine-story building, but nothing has changed. The fashion industry learned no lesson. Beyond the beautiful facades or (fake) ethical practices, exploitation is still the most convenient pattern for capitalism to make a high profit. And so famous brands make profits on the backs of workers.

Protests for a decent living

Now let’s also consider the millions of consumers who, every day, go shopping for brands whose manufacturing scheme is well-known. Perhaps they don’t mind workers’ rights since they aren’t directly affected. Do low prices attract your attention? Do you think before purchasing a new piece of clothing whose price is so cheap it couldn’t cover any manufacturing cost? And do you feel okay supporting a vision of the world based on forced labour?

Protests are going on in Bangladesh, demanding a decent living. People lost lives, and many others are starving. It seems that brands do not question their sourcing and manufacturing policy. But what about you: how can you close your eyes when shopping?

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