Ethical Fashion & Garment Workers

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In all the world of fashion we keep seeing terms like “sustainably made” “ethically made” “environmentally friendly” “made kind” and “green”. It can be a challenge to make sense of it all, so today we are going to talk about ethical fashion and the realities of the what it looks like to be a garment worker for many.

When we talk about sustainability it generally refers to the environmental impact that a product has, while ethical refers to the impact on people in the production and manufacturing process. Both terms work hand in hand. Sustainable practices should include ethical manufacturing, and ethical manufacturing should also include sustainable practices. For the purposes of today we will just be looking at ethical manufacturing and the people impact.  

The basic key ingredients of something being ethically made include fair wages, decent working conditions, health and safety, and the upholding of workers rights. Did you know that in the garment industry the average wage of foreign garment workers is just 39 cents an hour! I don’t know about you, but I would not be working for so little. The worst is, even with such a low pay rate (which is minimum wage in Bangladesh) the workers can have their wages illegally docked for making mistakes and not hitting increasingly high targets.

Think of this – you go to Target and buy a $10 t-shirt – the person who made it is being paid as little as 20c! That is just 2% of the retail price! 

Around 80% of garment workers are female, and they often move away from their families to be close to work, working six days a week and sending most of their wages back to their families. They sleep in apartments, on the concrete floor and share the space with other workers, sometimes as many as 10 people are sharing a one bathroom and two bedroom apartment.  

But this is the people who are paid per hour, there are workers who are paid per piece, and their rates can be even worse! Earning as little as 2c to 6c per piece, and working 60-70 hours per week they take home on average around $300 (USD). The workforce are mostly immigrants of Latino or Chinese background and they do not get paid for overtime. Their work conditions are cramped, dirty, poorly ventilated and unsafe with workers often becoming sick from the long hours and poor working conditions. 

You might think these piece work statistics come from Asia, but they don’t! These pay rates and conditions come from America’s garment manufacturing sector in Los Angeles! 

Unfortunately, it’s not just women who are found working in fashion factory sweatshops, it’s children too. In developing countries children as young as 5 have been found working in these poor conditions for less than 20c per hour and up to 16 hours a day! The conditions in the factories are not like when we have a bad day at work. There is plenty of well documented evidence that in the worst of the sweatshops, the workers get beaten and abused physically, sexually and verbally. 

You would think that with the pandemic conditions may have improved, but the opposite is actually true. Workers are not being paid and those who are have had wage decreases of up to 21%! 

Consider here in Australia, the minimum adult wage is $21.38 . Plus you get 9% super paid. We have Medicare and if you are full time you are entitled to sick leave, annual leave and maternity leave after having or adopting a child. If you are casual you get a 25% loading instead of the leave entitlements. I hear so many people here complaining of how little they get paid. 

In China’s province of Beijing they have the highest minimum hourly wage in China  of $5.70 (AUD)

In Vietnam the minimum hourly rate is $6.20 (AUD)

In the Phillipines the minimum hourly rate is $2.03 (AUD) 

In Ethiopia there is no minimum wages, the average hourly rate is $1.42 (AUD) 

You get the idea. 

But there is a difference between a minimum wage and a living wage, and unfortunately in many developing countries the minimum wage is only 70% of a fair and living wage. If we go back to our Bangladeshi workers earning 20c for a $10 item, if we were to pay them a fair wage it would only increase the cost to consumers by 1%. 

As you can tell, these conditions are not ethical by any standard, but this is what we support when we purchase fast fashion. One company I looked at that is producing fashion in 2 factories in China and that is taking social and ethical responsibility seriously, pays wages at the basic wage rate plus a housing subsidy, an attendance reward, a performance award and a commission. Their workers week is 38 hours and all overtime is paid for. They are pledged to meet the Global Living Wages regional guide for wages. This shows as the minimum wage being $437.25 a month, while they pay their workers on average $1260 per month. The wages are determined by position, as master pattern-makers do earn more than production workers. They proudly show images of their production team on their website and videos of inside their factories.  This is a company being transparent and open about their production, and clearly taking responsibility for their impact on people and the planet. (statistics from 2019)

You can see there is a massive difference between those who work in fair and decent conditions and those who are part of unethical labour practices.

So what can we as consumers do to ensure we are supporting ethical production of goods, because it’s not just clothing – it’s toys, shoes and furniture that are all affected by these shameful manufacturing practices. 

Firstly consider the price. If it is crazy cheap and that’s the normal price, then the workers probably aren’t being paid fairly. 

Secondly, look at the company’s transparency – do they state on their website where their products are made and talk about ethical and sustainable practices and how they are working towards a better future (beware of greenwashing which you can read about here!) 

Thirdly, look for ethical or fair-trade labels and certification – this tells you the people who made it have been looked after and have decent working conditions. Also look at the different international agreements the companies may be a part of like the Bangladesh Accord. 

Finally, if this information isn’t readily available ask your favourite brands where they make their products. Companies want to please their customers and the more we speak up and advocate for fair working conditions world wide, the more likely it is we can make a difference. 

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