Justice for Global Garment Workers

About the campaign

The wages paid to Bangladeshi women workers in the garment sector fall far short of what women need to escape poverty, whatever their work. This situation has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canadian brands and retailers are no different from other global brands as they seek to minimize production costs. In solidarity with unions representing apparel workers in producing countries, the Steelworkers Humanity Fund has joined with other Canadian unions and civil society organizations to fight injustices in the global apparel sector, in which workers, the majority of whom are women – and their families are the first victims of the “race to the bottom” at the heart of corporate globalization.

The campaign aims to:

  • Obtain binding commitments from Canadian apparel brands and retailers to ensure living wages are paid to the women and men who make our apparel throughout their global supply chains.
  • Build on demands from other global campaigns for brands to urgently protect workers in their supply chains from the impacts of COVID-19.
  • To educate USW members as well as the general public about the concept of a living wage and the significant gap between it and the current average salary of a garment worker.

Let’s build a strong labor movement by widely disseminating the findings of the Steelworkers Humanity Fund’s Not Even the Bare Minimum report and signing a pledge to support Bangladeshi garment workers for living wages

Report: not even the bare minimum

The Steelworkers Humanity Fund has released a groundbreaking report, Not Even the Bare Minimum, on the wages and living conditions of Bangladesh’s garment sector, which employs a majority of women, making garments in factories supplying Canadian brands and fashion retailers.

The research, undertaken by a Dhaka-based researcher, identified factories that produce for Canadian brands and retailers, then conducted interviews with 35 workers employed in a sample of nine factories located in the industrial belts surrounding the Bangladeshi capital and the port city of Chittagong. .

The report demonstrates that Canadian apparel companies are no different from other global brands as they seek to minimize production costs at the expense of decent work. The costs of production are pushed onto the shoulders of the women and men who work in the factories throughout the supply chain. This report offers garment workers the opportunity to speak about their living and working conditions in their own words.

The report also indicates solutions to deal with the immediate consequences of this situation on workers, such as support for salary insurance and the creation of a global guarantee fund for severance pay. Canadian brands must commit to paying living wages, which would be expressed in legally binding agreements.

What is a Living Wage?

A living wage is the minimum amount that allows a worker and his family to access basic daily needs such as food, housing, health care, education, clothing and transport, in one maximum 48-hour work week. This also includes a small savings for unexpected life events.

The legal minimum wage for the lowest paid garment workers in Bangladesh (established in 2018) is only C$125 per month (about $5 per day). Many of the women who sew our clothes in Bangladesh only earn $6 or $7 a day, locking them into poverty no matter what their job.

When COVID-19 hit, garment workers in Bangladesh had no cushion to fall back on, no matter how long they worked in the industry.

The liability of Canadian clothing brands

For years, Canadian brands have profited from the global power imbalance between buyers and suppliers in the apparel sector, and the repression of workers’ rights in the factories of suppliers in the Global South. Canadian apparel brands have the power and the resources to ensure their suppliers provide decent wages and working conditions to workers.

In Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza disaster sounded alarm bells for many Canadian consumers when they saw the terrible – and in this case – deadly conditions in which the clothes they wear had been produced. Responding to growing pressure, garment companies have since adopted various measures aimed at improving factory safety for workers in the industry. But the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how vulnerable the vast majority are still to exploitation and abuse.

The Steelworkers Humanity Fund is working closely with our partners in Bangladesh to document this situation and for companies to face the contradictions between their words and their actions.

But to change the system that allows these inequalities, we must act at the global level. That’s why the USW has also joined the #PayYourWorkers campaign, which champions the need for retailers and brands that sell wearable products to ensure that: a) workers who make these products receive full pay while throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and b) that workers who have lost their jobs as a result of factory closures receive their full statutory severance pay and any back wages due.

Looking ahead, a second international campaign – WageForward – will launch later this year calling on retailers and brands around the world to pledge to pay a premium price on all orders to help ensure workers receive wages decent.

How USW Supports Bangladeshi Garment Workers

Together with other Canadian unions, the Steelworkers Humanity Fund has been there to amplify the stories and voices of women, learning from them and supporting them along the way. As such, we:

  • Organization of two Canadian union delegations to Bangladesh, in 2016 and 2019;
  • Provide continued funding to the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) to help garment workers learn about their legal rights and to advocate;
  • Asked brands to sign and effectively implement the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety following the Rana Plaza disaster which resulted in the death of 1,134 garment workers;
  • Worked with Canadian Tire (also owner of Marks, Sport Chek and Sports Experts) to support garment workers in Bangladesh. In 2017, about 1,000 people took part in the No More Operating in the Dark campaign, asking Canadian Tire to disclose the locations of its suppliers’ factories. In 2018, Steelworker activists from every United Steelworker district visited local retail stores and met with local managers;
  • $50,000 contribution to BCWS to provide emergency relief to families of garment workers who suddenly lost their jobs, after retailers and fashion brand canceled and/or refused to pay their order due to COVID-19.
  • Publication of “Not Even the Bare Minimum: Bangladeshi Garment Workers’ Wages and the Responsibility of Canadian Brands”, a report documenting the working conditions of women who manufacture garments for Canadian brands in Bangladesh.

Michael O. Stutler