We are looking at an unprecedented race to the bottom. Consumers’ delight in fast fashion that is both trendy and affordable is leading to a severe form of just-in-time production at the lowest cost possible, which, in turn gives rise to opaque supply chains.
From Bangladesh to China, Turkey to Brazil, many garment workers face dangerous working conditions while struggling to survive on low wages. This only adds to the precarious and vulnerable situations in which they already live.
In this section, three thought leaders share their perspectives on the challenges to overcoming the complex, entrenched issues that perpetuate substandard working conditions. All three agree that more transparency is the way to create just and dignified working conditions for the millions of apparel workers across the world.
Claudio Orozco Quirarte
Courtesy of GIZ
Supported a pilot mapping project with BRAC University into the number of unregistered factories in the garment industry in Bangladesh
Designed initiatives with LaborVoices and Labor Link in Turkey and Bangladesh, respectively, to give workers a voice
Designed and launched the Living Wage Innovation Challenge with The Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law (HiiL) to identify inspiring ideas on how to provide fairer conditions for garment workers.Read more
Head of Supply Chain Innovation & Transformation,
The global garment industry is a hazardous and exploitative place for many garment workers who often have to work extremely long hours for meagre pay. Many are exposed daily to dangerous working conditions that compromise their health and safety, a situation evidenced by recent industry accidents.
While some brands are making strides to address the issues, a lack of transparency and traceability in the apparel supply chain makes it very challenging. To make any sort of change at the most basic level brands, consumers and worker advocates need to know where their garments are produced. The journey that a garment makes to reach a consumer is complex and largely unmapped. In Bangladesh alone, for example, there are at least 4,000 registered factories, but there are also numerous unregistered factories that do subcontracted work. The fact is, despite their efforts, companies may not always know where their products are being manufactured and it is in these dark corners where exploitation thrives.
Even when we know where a garment is produced, we often do not know how it is produced. Many brands spend significant resources in auditing factories, which is an important tool. However, if information gleaned about working conditions is not shared publicly, others – both buyers and workers – do not benefit from the lessons learned.
Transparency could change that. Publicly disclosing audit information would compel factories to make changes and allow for comparison between factories and brands. In Cambodia, for example, where compliance information for about two-thirds of all exporting factories (550 in total) has been publicly disclosed, workers are already reaping the benefits. Disclosures like this are a vital step toward greater accountability across the industry.
Better Factories Cambodia assessment results, for the 309 factories in the Critical Issues database as of December 2014 – when compared to those same factories’ most recent pre-transparency assessments – reveal: (Source )
increase in compliance with the requirement to regularly hold evacuation drills
increase in compliance with the requirement to keep exit doors unlocked during working hours
increase in compliance with the requirement to ensure that workers are free from discrimination
increase in compliance with the requirement to include workers’ entire period of employment when calculating benefits and entitlements.
Kohl Gill PhD, CEO and Founder of LaborVoices, former International Labour Affairs and CSR Officer with the US Department of State
When poor working conditions in the apparel industry came to light in the 1990s, well-meaning brands sent inspectors into factories to gain a complete and accurate picture of the situation. Since then, thousands of inspections, costing millions of dollars, have taken place. So why do poor working conditions persist?
Brand audits of factories occur a few times a year and give a snapshot of conditions. But they don’t allow brands to continuously see what is happening between audits, and the information gathered typically stays with factory management or brands. That means behaviours may be corrected on a factory-by-factory basis, but not the industry as a whole.
At LaborVoices, we believe that the best inspectors are workers themselves. By repeatedly polling workers through their mobile phones, we generate real-time visibility into factory conditions. And in the spirit of transparency, we believe this information should be shared with factory management, brands, and other workers.
This combination of transparency and readily available information is a sustainable way to drive market-wide change. Armed with the right insights, workers can make confident choices between factories, brands can choose to work with the best suppliers, and best-in-class factories can rise above the competition.
Professor Dr. Peter Eigen Founder of Transparency International, honorary professor of Politcal Science at the Freie Universität, Berlin and member of Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panelup
Transparency is the basis for openness and responsibility. But the availability of information on its own is not enough to bring about real change. We need to create a whole system of integrity and legal protection against corruption.
Society must be able to intervene when the situation is unacceptable, but in a globalised economy social control is lost. This is mainly because governments do not have the geographical reach to regulate companies operating across borders. Better governance would be key to guarding against corruption, but national governments cannot do it alone. The magic triangle of cooperation among civil society, government and the private sector holds great potential. When all actors come together to decide the standards and implement them, they level the playing field. They strengthen social accountability without losing business.
The apparel industry can learn from other industries that have taken on the same challenges. Take the mining industry. In 2003, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) launched with the goal to ask governments, companies and civil society organisations to disclose information on financial payments to host countries in the mining, gas, and oil industries. This allows citizens to see how money is generated and spent, and allows civil society to advocate countries to fulfil commitments. In countries that have implemented it, the EITI is making a difference. It is a good example of how bringing actors together to enforce a national standard of transparency can be a practicable and effective approach.
Shumi has been in the garment industry for 14 years. Throughout that time, she’s endured poor working conditions and low wages. But thanks to a programme empowering workers through improved information in her current factory, she’s been able to be part of the solution.
I was in the eighth grade when we found out that my father had lost his business. I realised that continuing my education wasn’t an option, so I went to work to help support my family. I’d heard there were good opportunities and the chance for a better life in Dhaka, so I moved there from Mymensingh, the placed I’d lived all my life.
Since the programme started, my relationship with management has improved. We work together to solve problems. Now, I feel empowered.
I knew a bit about tailoring so I found it easy to get a job in a garment factory. I started as a helper earning 650 Bangladesh Taka (about 8 EURO) a month. After three months, I was promoted to sewing operator. By that time, I had responsibility for my parents and my younger brothers and sisters. That was 14 years ago. I’ve been in the garment industry ever since.
I’ve been at my current factory for six years. My monthly salary has increased to around 4,211 Bangladesh Taka (about 50 EURO) and I became a member of the workers’ participation committee, but things haven’t been easy here. It gets very dirty with all the waste left on the floor. I’ve found it difficult to get proper leave and at times my managers have shouted at me. When that happened, I didn’t know what to say or do.
Recently though, things have started to look up. My factory has joined the Sustainable Supplier Programme. Management has put a skills matrix in place, and there’s a fixed wage structure where you are paid according to how many operations you can work. I can run three machines and I’m going to learn more. Also, since the programme started, relationships between workers and management have improved, there is a more open dialogue. We work together to solve problems. Now, I feel empowered.
of the issues raised in global audits of the apparel industry over the past two years were related to health and safety (Source)
Highest relevant rate applicable to unskilled garment workers
Lowest relevant rate applicable to unskilled garment workers