Fashion continues to thrive thanks to low-paying women’s clothing manufacturers
Fashion, an industry that exists disproportionately for female consumers, still makes its clothes by exploiting its garment makers, the vast majority of whom are women. It’s not new. What’s new is that, six years after an international tragedy brought the problem to light, almost nothing has been done to address it, concludes a report by researchers from the University of Sheffield, UK -United.
In 2013, consumers and fashion brands were made aware of abusive manufacturing practices when more than 1,100 people died in the collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story building outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. It had housed several garment factories from which clothes were made for international brands such as Benetton, Mango and many others. The day before the collapse, workers had noticed cracks in the building, but were ordered to come to work anyway.
In the aftermath of the disaster, under pressure from consumers, fashion brands pledged to improve working conditions and pay. However, “there is little evidence that corporate commitments to living wages are translating into meaningful change on the ground,” Genevieve LeBaron, director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, author of the report, told The Guardian. “So consumers are buying products they think are made by workers earning a living wage, when in reality low wages continue to be the status quo in the global apparel industry.”
Women disproportionately bear the brunt of this exploitation. According to the International Labor Organization, up to 80% of global garment workers are women. In addition to not earning a living wage, these women often face a significant pay gap compared to their male counterparts; in India, the gender pay gap in the garment manufacturing industry is 53.3%, which is much larger than the gender pay gap in the formal workforce of the country, which is 34%.
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Clues that promises to raise living wages for garment workers were hollow have been building for some time. Most fashion brands don’t actually own their factories, but instead outsource their production, which translates to little control over how their commitments materialize on the ground. Take H&M: After the Rana Plaza tragedy shone a spotlight on the exploitation of garment workers, the fast fashion giant has promised to pay its 850,000 workers in 750 factories a ‘living wage’ by 2018 “In 2017, however, H&M’s language around its living wage strategy took a slight turn. The 2018 target was to have ‘enhanced wage management systems in place’ at suppliers representing 50% of its product volume,” Jasmin Malik Chua told Vox last year.
And in April this year, Bangladeshi garment workers protesting against an increase in the minimum wage (to $0.45 per hour) – which would still keep them among the lowest paid garment workers in the world – have faced mass layoffs and bogus arrests.
As the University of Sheffield report notes, “a minimum wage is a legal floor below which wages cannot fall, [while] a living wage is defined by various necessities such as food, shelter, medical care, clothing and transportation that people need to live. “
The new report does not name any names; it examines the commitments of 20 global apparel companies. But it doesn’t have to be – underpaid garment workers are starting to speak out. Last year, #payupuniqlo made the rounds as workers at a bankrupt factory in Indonesia demanded $5.5 million in unpaid wages from the Japanese clothing brand. They say the factory became insolvent when Uniqlo pulled out of business without warning and without paying its bills. Fast Retailing, which owns the brand, insists it acted legally.
But legality is no longer in question, and for a long time. With “ethical fashion” the new buzzword, fashion companies must be held to a higher standard, one that is not based on taking their word at face value. And there’s only one group that can do that: consumers. The devil doesn’t have to wear Prada.