Despite the millions of profits generated by brands annually, exploitation of workers and cheap labour are rife within the garment industry.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognises the provision of a living wage as a basic human right (refer to ILO Conventions 95 & 131, ILO Recommendations 131 & 135).
So why is a living wage so elusive to millions of garment workers?
What is a living wage?
Let's begin with a definition of a living wage.
Not to be confused with a minimum wage (which will be defined next), a living wage provides workers with sufficient money to fulfil their basic needs, and those of their family, allowing them to maintain a safe and decent standard of living. This wage is to be earned within a standard working week of no more than 48 hours. Workers should be provided with an adequate level of nutrition, housing, energy, transportation, healthcare, childcare, education, clothing, and savings for when something unexpected happens.
What is a minimum wage?
Despite a living wage being a human right, in many countries, the lowest wages worker receive is significantly less.
A minimum wage refers to the statutory minimum amount of money employers are required to pay employees for their work carried out during a given period. This amount is however, rarely sufficient to cover basic living costs. The minimum wage is often determined through negotiations between government, industry and sometimes trade unions. These groups don’t necessarily take into account the needs of workers.
What is the impact of not providing a living wage?
Garment workers are placed in exceptionally vulnerable positions, as their salaries are often not enough to cover the cost of living, and provide for their families. They may therefore be forced into working overtime, or to take on multiple jobs. They maybe unable to refuse work if they are unwell, when working conditions are unsafe, or when conditions of employment are poor. In order to make ends meet, parents may be forced to put their children into work, jeopardising their education, or rely on loans, leaving them unable to put away savings, perpetuating the poverty and debt cycle.
Garment Worker Diaries
Fashion Revolution’s ‘Garment Worker Diaries’ provide an intimate look into the daily lives of garment workers from Bangladesh, Cambodia and India, revealing that the living and working conditions vary greatly between the three countries.
Bangladesh was revealed to have the harshest conditions, and the highest rates of exploitation. The average working week was 60 hours, with workers earning an hourly rate of 28 taka (equivalent to 0.95USD in purchasing power parity (PPP*)). Evidence also suggested that that the more time worked the less workers earned. Workers also received less than the minimum hourly wage 64% of the time.
Garment workers in Cambodia were found to often seek overtime in order to supplement their income, but were rarely legally compensated for this. The average working week was 48 hours, with workers earning an hourly rate of 3,500 riels (equivalent of 2.53USD in PPP).
Garment workers in India were shown to live a comparatively comfortable life, compared to their counterparts in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Indian workers were usually provided with the legal minimum wage or higher, and this was usually paid into pension and state insurance programmes. The average working week was 46 hours, with workers earning 39.68 INR (equivalent of 2.27 USD in PPP). It was however reported that workers in India were exposed to verbal abuse by their supervisors.
The Clean Clothes Campaign have published this great animation on what is the 'Asia Floor Wage', and how it can assist those who make our clothes. The video also provides a great explanation of the concept of PPP*.
There are many other fantastic initiatives out there which are uncovering the important stories behind the people who make our clothes. Adopting more of an empathetic approach will not only help us better connect with these people, and better understand their lives, but will encourage us to make more ethical and sustainable decisions when it comes to our clothing consumption.
What drives these low wages?
So what are some of the driving forces behind such unfair wages within the global supply chain?
Is it the focus on making the greatest profit for shareholders, which results in the shifting of the cost and risk down the supply chain?
This imbalance is hard to ignore, when you consider that while the wages of garment workers have fallen in real terms, this hasn't resulted in cheaper goods.
What about the fact that it in just four days, a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands is able to earn the equivalent of a Bangladeshi garment workers lifetime earnings.
Is it the inability to establish fair wages and working conditions caused by not allowing employees to join or form trade unions when negotiating with their employers?
Trade unions are often portrayed as enemies, not allies. Workers are also often unaware their rights, raising the risk that their voices won't be heard.
Is it the inadequacy of the minimum wage?
There is a huge gap between the statutory minimum wage and the minimum living wage in many countries. As mentioned previously, the minimum wage in many countries does not cover the basic costs associated with a safe and decent standard of living.
While there is movement in the right direction, making a living wage a reality for all garment workers will undoubetedly rely on a long-term, collaborative effort by governments, trade unions, retailers, buyers, producers and us as consumers.
A quote from the ‘Labour Behind the Label’ website really puts the wage issue into perspective;
“Garment workers typically earn between 1-3% of the retail price of an item of clothing. If a t-shirt costs £8, the worker who made it receives 24p at most. To double this wage would only be another 24p.”
Please check out ‘Portraits of Cambodian Garment Workers’ by German photographer Steffi Eckelmann, which is a series of portraits of garment workers. The 'Clean Clothes Campaign' also include some snippets of the interviews conducted about their lives and dreams.
For more information on the great work the 'Asia Floor Wage' campaign is doing to create higher wages within the garment industry, click on the link and check out their website.