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‘More than a quarter of the world’s production of clothing and textiles is in China, which has a fast growing internal market and the largest share of world trade.’

- Well Dressed report, Cambridge University 2006

It is estimated that China will soon produce 50% or more of all global textiles and garments.

In general, the Chinese clothing and textiles labour force is skilled, and coupled with low wages this gives Chinese clothing manufacturers a significant global advantage.
(‘Labour implications of the textiles and clothing quota phase-out’. Nodas Jan 2005)

However, the Chinese government places restrictions on the rights of workers to set up and work together in unions- or the right to Freedom of Association, a fundamental convention of the International Labour Organisation.

Without workers being able to freely co-operate to work towards fair wages and fair working conditions, it is difficult for companies sourcing from China to be sure of fair working practices. There have been many reports of low wages, long hours, and unfair working conditions in factories in China. Fines are sometimes imposed on workers for refusing to work overtime. While this is illegal, evidence suggests it is still widespread.

The enforcement of labour legislation is weak which means that while Chinese law states that the working week should not exceed 40 hours, in the garment sector it often amounts to more like 72 – 100 hours a week.

Chinese workers quoted in Play Fair at the Olympics (A Clean Clothes Campaign report) reported in 2004 that they were frequently made to work a seven-day week in peak season. In one factory, they had worked 120 hours.

In 2000, an estimated 120 million internal migrants travelled from the countryside to the city in search of factory work. When a migrant worker moves to the city they leave behind their registered place of residence which means also their rights and benefits such as education, medical and social welfare. Migrant workers are often paid on a piece-rate basis, often working out below the legal minimum wage.

What can fashion companies do?

Some fashion companies are addressing these concerns in progressive ways- for example by developing close and long term working relationships with suppliers in China, and initiating stakeholder forums for workers so that they can offer feedback and have their concerns heard, in the absence of trade unions.

More information

Useful links

  • Founded in 1994 by labour activist Han Dongfang, China Labour Bulletin has grown from a small monitoring and research group into a proactive outreach organization that seeks to defend and promote workers rights in the People’s Republic of China

  • Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium, Hong Kong

  • ChinaCSR.com provides news and information devoted to helping corporate social responsibility professionals act on new trends and forge new paths of their own.

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