Power and poverty in the fashion industry
Australians love to shop fashion – we each spend on average about US $1,050 on clothing a year, more than people in the United States, Canada, Japan or the European Union. But many of us do not know the stories behind the clothes we love to buy and wear – the stories of workers, mainly women, who are toiling for long hours to be paid pittance wages that are denying them a chance to break free from poverty.
Twenty-year-old Fatima, who spoke to Oxfam last year, is one of these workers – she is paid just 43 cents an hour making clothes in a factory in Bangladesh. Despite working an average six-day week and as much overtime as she can, sometimes coming home at midnight, Fatima struggles to earn enough money to support herself and her mother, who is unwell.
Sometimes, Fatima chooses to go without food as she tries to stretch whatever little money is left until her next pay. She has worked in factories since her father died when she was 16 and can only afford to live in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, which is shared with ten people. They share a tiny kitchen and even smaller toilet and bathing area. Running water is available for one hour, just three times a day. One of Fatima’s roommates owns a thin single mattress, but Fatima sleeps on the concrete floor.
Fatima’s story is echoed by far too many among the millions of women who make our clothes, earning poverty wages to fuel an industry that has boomed over the past two decades.
But it does not have to be this way. The brands behind the clothes we love should be making sure the women in their supply chains are paid a living wage – a wage earned in a standard week that covers essential needs including food, housing, healthcare, clothing, transport, education, and some money for unexpected events.
The garment industry is worth big bucks and is one of the largest employers of women workers. The sector holds great power and potential to impact the lives of millions of women in low-income countries and, by extension, their families and communities. But companies are driven by maximising profit and dividends to their shareholders. The industry turns over $27 billion a year in Australia and is growing at close to 4 per cent annually. To keep pushing profit margins higher, brands are also pushing factories for the lowest possible cost to manufacture their clothes. And, the industry is focusing more and more on fast fashion – cheap, throw-away garments that only last a few wears. In fast fashion in Australia, revenue is growing annually at 21.5 per cent. Meanwhile, governments in garment-producing countries are keeping legal minimum wages low to attract investment. The result is that the women and men making our clothes are trapped in a cycle of poverty.
This shocking inequality is the result of deliberate choices by company leadership, mega-rich individuals and governments around the world – choices that have enabled the very wealthy to accumulate more, while hundreds of millions of people remain left behind. Excessive working hours combined with persistently low wages means garment workers in many countries across Asia are often unable to afford appropriate housing, cannot always provide enough food for themselves and their families, and struggle to pay for health and education. Many do not get sufficient rest, nor do they have time to spend with their children. Their meagre wages mean that they cannot save for shocks, such as becoming unexpectedly ill or losing their jobs – and they are often driven into spiralling debt.
But how much does it really take to pay a living wage? Research conducted by Deloitte Access Economics for Oxfam last year revealed that in the average supply chain of Australian garment retailers, just 4 per cent of the price of a piece of clothing is estimated to make it back to the pockets of workers. That is just 40 cents from a $10 T-shirt. In countries like Bangladesh, where wages are extremely low, the situation is even worse – an average of just 2 per cent of the price we pay in Australia goes towards factory wages.
Oxfam argues that paying living wages – wages that allow the women who make our clothes to live a decent life – is possible. Even if big companies passed the entire cost of paying living wages to all workers on to consumers, Deloitte estimates this would increase the price of a piece of clothing sold in Australia by just 1 per cent. That is just 10 cents extra for a $10 T-shirt. With profits being made at the factory and wholesale and retail levels in garment supply chains, there is room for big brands to absorb these costs without passing them on to the people who buy their clothes.
It is time for this unfair system to change. Brands need to pay living wages to the women who make our clothes. Living wages would mean workers would be able to buy enough food. Living wages would allow workers and their families to live in decent, local housing that doesn’t see five people crammed into just one room. Living wages would ensure workers have enough for education, transport, seeing a doctor and savings in case of an emergency.
Since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh in 2013, Australians have been asking big brands like Kmart, Target and Cotton On to improve their safety standards, resulting in many Australian brands signing on to the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord.
More recently, Australians have helped to make big brands become more transparent and accountable, calling on them to stop hiding the locations of factories that make their clothes.
It is now time to go further. Brands must publicly commit to paying their workers a living wage and to publishing a roadmap that shows step-by-step how – and when – they will achieve this commitment. Oxfam has seen that many Australians care about the women who make their clothes – people have taken to social media this year to tell the brands selling the school uniforms for their children, or the presents that they buy for Mother’s Day, that they expect more.
The fight to secure a living wage for garment workers is the crucial next step in creating a fairer fashion industry for women like Fatima – and for all the women who make our clothes.