August 08, 2016
For more than two decades, more and more Americans have become aware of the exploitation and violence associated with much of the globalized garment industry producing more than 95 percent of our clothes. A series of media exposures, including the 1996 revelation that TV host Kathy Lee Gifford had endorsed a clothing line produced by Honduran children in sweatshop conditions, spurred a growing consciousness of labor abuses in many countries.
These exposures highlighted the persistent use of child labor, the absence of living wages that could sustain a decent livelihood for millions of workers, and the prevalence of unsafe working conditions. The latter issue was thrust dramatically into public awareness by the collapse in April, 2013 of Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh that housed a number of garment companies supplying brands like Children’s Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions, and the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. The collapse of the building, which many workers had warned was unsafe, killed 1,139 workers and injured 2,500 more.
Although many of the major brands made public commitments to rectify such abuses, they continue to shed direct responsibility by contracting with local suppliers and subcontractors in different countries. They can easily move from country to country, supplier to supplier, to keep prices competitive while exerting downward pressure on workers’ wages and working conditions.
This dynamic, too, has gained media attention along with the abuses themselves. TV satirist John Oliver focused on it last year in a segment of his show, “Last Week Tonight,” while filmmaker Andrew Morgan devoted an entire documentary, The True Cost, to exposing the system and its detrimental effects on millions of people. Both Oliver and Morgan unveiled visual evidence of profound inequity, yet exploitation and deprivation persist while fashion industry executives have become some of the wealthiest people on the planet (e.g. Stefan Persson of H&M worth $28 billion; Amancio Ortega of Zara worth $57 billion).
Many consumers who become aware of these problems are left with uncertainty as to a responsible course of action. Some have begun to look to fair trade certification as an answer, seeking out businesses that promise adherence to ethical labor and environmental standards. Yet considering the vast preponderance of garments manufactured by major brands, a number of critics argue that for the 40 million garment workers worldwide, a more comprehensive, sector-wide approach is needed.
One possible beginning step for individuals is a basic one: moving beyond the identity of “ethical consumer” to embrace the broader, more responsive identity of global citizen. The former is still closely identified with the products we choose, the latter with an awareness of the social relations defined by a globalized capitalist economy. As a more encompassing term, citizenship entails a responsibility for continuing self-education no matter what one’s stage of life may be.
From this perspective, it may well be worth one’s while to visit the websites of organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. These umbrella organizations represent broad coalitions of trade unions and human rights organizations, and their response to the issues is political. They engage in advocacy, lobbying, and public education to support garmentworkers’ rights (including freedom of association and union representation) across the national boundaries that transnational corporations so easily traverse. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance makes a crucial distinction between the legal minimum wage in many of the producing countries and a living wage that enables workers to support themselves and their families with dignity. And these organizations offer ways that individuals can help take a stand in solidarity with workers, including (on the Clean Clothes website) a link that provides information on the corporate behavior of specific labels.
It may be objected that with so many American jobs already lost overseas, our focus should stay squarely on retaining and growing jobs here at home. Yet the garment industry is itself a prime example of outsourcing; it wasn’t very long ago that most of the clothes purchased in the U.S. were made by American workers. The same global economics affecting the welfare of workers in Bangladesh or Cambodia affect the welfare of workers here.
More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from Birmingham, Alabama, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” If he had written those words today from Dhaka or Mumbai, Phnom Penh or Jakarta, they’d ring as true now as they ever did.
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Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.
July 07, 2016
Benny Kuruvilla of Newsclick spoke with trade unionist Anannya Bhattacharjee after the recent International Labor Organization conference. Bhattcharjee explains the campaign of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance that aims to hold global corporations accountable for the payment of a living wage in the garment industry.
Listen to this interview for a perspective from workers in Asia. We at The Human thread aim to act in solidarity with the just demands of workers represented by Bhattacharjee.
June 06, 2016
On Monday, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance released a significant report entitled “Precarious Work in the Walmart Global Value Chain.” It is the latest in a series of reports on the maritime industry, GAP, and H & M. The reports drew the attention of The New York Times under the headline: “Retailers Like H&M and Walmart Fall Short of Pledges to Overseas Workers.”
Coverage also includes:
The Asia Floor Wage report is no mere passing fancy. It is the result of intense labor:
This report presents new research on violations of international labour standards in Walmart garment supplier factories. Information was collected through interviews and focus group discussions including 344 workers engaged in Walmart supply chains in Bangladesh, Cambodia and India; and an in-depth case study, spanning 8 months, of working conditions in an Indonesian Walmart supplier employing 3,800 Indonesian contract workers. (p. 4)
From the report, The New York Times article (cited above) draws the following claims:
A series of new reports by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a coalition of trade unions and other research and advocacy groups, has put a new spotlight on the conditions. In Bangladesh, the group says, tens of thousands of workers sew garments in buildings without proper fire exits. In Indonesia, India and elsewhere, pregnant women are vulnerable to reduced wages and discrimination. In Cambodia, workers who protested for an extra $20 a month were shot and killed.
The flurry of reports from Asia Floor Wage are in the run up to the annual International Labour Conference, beginning this week, of the International Labour Organization, an arm of the United Nations. Important international conventions and norms around labor, supply chains, and ethics hang in the balance.
Clearly, empty are the pledges from many retailers to improve conditions, both in safety and in wages, in Bangladesh and elsewhere since Rana Plaza. Counting on the corporations simply to do the right thing is not enough. The body count since Rana Plaza gives evidence to that. The lives of these workers are worth more than our having cheap racks of clothes. What are you going to do about it? Start by taking the St. Vincent Pledge.
May 05, 2016
On Sunday, British tabloid newspaper The Sun described the Sri Lankan garment workers who make Beyoncé’s new Ivy Park apparel line as “sweatshop ‘slaves'” earning just 64 cents an hour. The Sun‘s reporters visited “poverty-stricken seamstresses” at the MAS Holdings factory in Sri Lanka, which produces the clothes. A sewing machine operator said that she was unable to survive on her basic wage of 18,500 rupees a month ($126). The newspaper claimed on average seamstresses earn $6.23 a day, although acknowledging that workers at the factory were still being paid roughly double the legal minimum wage of 13,500 rupees a month. The full article can be found here. Teen Vogue, while examining the criticism of Beyoncé, noted that Ivy Park is not the only apparel line to face abuse claims.
The justifications made by Beyoncé and Ivy Park sound a lot like her 2007 hit “Beautiful Liar”:
While Beyoncé’s Ivy Park line markets independence and empowerment for women, it deprives the women who make the wardrobe their freedom and dignity. Paid between $116 and $136 a month, the Teen Vogue article notes that “the workers who reside on the premises are locked into their living spaces at night. They must abide by curfews, and keep movement to a minimum.” Sadly, that is the industry norm, not the exception.
The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an alliance led by trade unions in the key garment producing countries in Asia, has teamed with The Center for Alliance of Labor & Human Rights and a number of other organizations, to release a report contributing new research collected through interviews with 251 workers engaged in H&M supply chains. The report, entitled, “Precarious Work in the H&M Global Value Chain,” an investigation of production conditions in H & M factories in Cambodia and India, is one in of a series of reports, entitled “Workers Voices from the Global Supply Chain: A Report to the ILO 2016.”
We can and must do better. Those who make our clothing deserve a wage that provides enough for workers and their families to live on, in dignity and safety.