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Wages & workers rights

  1. The role of fashion professionals
  2. Harsh conditions for garment workers
  3. The impact of shifting production and short term sourcing relationships
  4. Initiatives torwards change

Almost three quarters of world clothing exports are made in developing countries.

With many factories in developing countries competing for valuable contracts with garment companies, prices and production times have been pushed down and down.

Hourly wages in garment factories around the world are often less than 50p. In Bangladesh, where 80% of the economy depends on the fashion industry, the minimum wage now stands at £7.16 a month (2006). That’s 2.5 times less than its value of £18 in 1994, while the price of essential commodities- like rice, sugar, cooking oil and water – has risen by 200 per cent…(making it) virtually impossible for workers to support their families. (Ethical Trading Initiative , 2006)

Garment workers all over the world still face unfair and unsafe working conditions with few rights.

1. The role of fashion professionals

Fashion professionals hold the key to changing the lives and opportunities of the garment workers in the supply chains to their businesses.

Many businesses have taken important steps to improve practices in their supply chains through building closer working relationships with suppliers, and through engaging with the Ethical Trading Initiative, MADE-BY, the Ethical Fashion Forum, and other support bodies.

Consumers also have a key role to play by supporting those companies which are actively addressing workers rights issues and asking questions of those which are not.

2. Harsh conditions for garment workers

‘We have buried our dreams. Our only concern for the future is to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to our children.’ Ana, a Honduran garment worker

With the majority of garment manufacture concentrated in some of the poorest parts of the world, the fashion industry represents an enormous opportunity to create sustainable livelihoods and to lift communities out of poverty. However, very little of the value of the industry is currently transferred to those who need it most. Poverty wages, unfair and unsafe conditions for garment workers continue to be widespread.

“We work from 8 am till noon, then have our lunch break. After lunch we work from 1 to 5 pm. We do overtime every day, from 5.30 pm. During the peak season, we work until 2 or 3 am. Although exhausted, we have no choice. We cannot refuse overtime: our basic wage is too low. If we want to rest, our employer forces us to keep working”. Phan, a 22-year-old machinist in a Thai garment factory

‘There is a lot of verbal abuse. Management call us names throughout the time we are working. They call us “stupid”, “lazy”, “useless”, “bastard’s child”. They say “You don’t deserve any better”. There is physical abuse as well. Our ears are often pulled, and managers yell directly into our ears .’
Elina, a garment worker in Indonesian factory PT Busana Prima Global

A tiny fraction of final retail price reaches garment workers

It is estimated that the average percentage of the final retail cost of a garment made in the developing world, which goes to the garment worker, ranges from 0.5- 4%.

3. The impact of shifting production and short term sourcing relationships

The structure of global garment production continues to shift as new low wage factories enter the market. It has become common place for western companies to shift factories and even countries with very little notice meaning that workers cannot be given long term contracts and are frequently treated as temporary workers or laid off.

‘We are never sure of whether the next order will be coming. You cannot therefore engage people on a regular basis when you are not sure that there will be work’ Oxfam (2004) (Trading Away Our Rights: women working in global supply chains, www.maketradefair.com)

Temporary workers often do not receiving the same benefits as permanent employees such as health insurance and holiday pay. Some factories are moving towards employing more workers on a temporary basis to avoid being locked in to a permanent contract – this means the workers have little job security.

Razia, garment worker in Lahore, Pakistan: Razia has been working at her factory for three years but is still a temporary worker. She starts work at 7am and finishes at 10 or 11pm. She has no fixed working hours and often has no idea when she will be back home. (Research in Subcontracting Chains in the Pakistani Garment Industry, Working Women Organisation, 2003)

4. Initiatives torwards change

The Ethical Fashion Forum works with its members systematically, on an annual basis, to achieve improved social and environmental standards.

MADE-BY offers fashion companies. advice and support for gradually improving the social, economic and ecological conditions throughout the whole supply chain of their collections.

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) aims to help companies, trade unions and NGOs to meet or exceed international labour standards. Companies engaging with the ETI make a commitment to change over time to their supply chain this is done through a personalised membership criteria including the ETI base code. Each member must produce an annual report to the ETI on their performance.

More information

Useful links

  • Labour Behind the Label supports garment workers' efforts worldwide to defend their rights.This part of the website contains introductory information about the problems, solutions, and greenwash that surround workers' rights campaigning in the fashion industry.

  • Fashioning an Ethical Industry -FEI-is a Labour Behind the Label project that works with students and tutors on fashion related courses to give a global overview of the garment industry. FEI has produced a range of factsheets for students and tutors, providing background and case studies to the issues facing garment workers the world over.

  • The Responsible Purchasing Initiative seeks to learn from and improve how international sourcing from developing countries contributes to international sustainable development. A set of guidelines can be found on the RPI website.

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