The global garment industry is responsible for millions of people’s well-being around the world. The chains linking high-street stores such as H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer, and the people who make the clothes these stores sell, stretch across the globe.
A living wage is a human right. Yet the scandalous truth is that the majority of workers in the global fashion industry cannot afford to live with dignity, and earn no more than €6 a day in an industry worth over €34 billion across Europe. The Clean Clothes Campaign believes that no company can truly claim to be working ethically if the people who produce its clothes are paid less than a living wage.
We initiated this survey with the aim of providing greater transparency for consumers on this issue, which we feel needs close scrutiny: namely whether the people making garments for the brands from which we buy our clothes are paid a living wage, so that they and their families can live with dignity. We surveyed 50 of Europe’s leading clothing companies to find out what steps they are taking to ensure this is the case.
Sadly we found that very few companies are doing enough. Only four of the 50 companies we contacted – Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Switcher and Tchibo – were able to demonstrate work that we thought might lead to wages increasing in a significant way over time, and none of the companies surveyed are as yet paying a living wage.
But some limited progress is being made. Since the Asia Floor Wage Alliance established in 2009 a real benchmark for what a living wage means, companies can no longer shirk their responsibility for ensuring a living wage is paid by saying there is no definition to the term. Seven companies – Bestseller, G-Star, New Look, Puma, Switcher, Takko Fashion and Tchibo – have now adopted what we would consider to be a credible living-wage benchmarking tool, which is vital for quantifying and communicating the goal they are working towards. Some other progress is being made in the fields of pricing, with seven companies now pricing up what the labour cost is for each product, and including this as a separate cost in price breakdowns. One company, Switcher, is also trialling a method to pay a wage ‘top-up bonus’, calculated as a 1% increase on the price paid to the factory, which goes directly to the workers.
But overall, change is not happening fast enough and the wage situation is reaching a critical breaking point. Workers in garment-producing countries around the world are increasingly fighting back against economic oppression. Recent months have seen demonstrations break out in Cambodia, where hundreds of thousands of workers, with no option left but to take to the streets, demanded a new monthly minimum wage of 160 USD. Workers in Bangladesh similarly have been marching in their thousands for better wages and safer factories.
For more than ten years, brands have been promising both workers and consumers that living wages will be paid, despite evidence to the contrary. Workers have been told to wait while brands work out what a living wage is and how to make sure they don’t have to pay the cost. Consumers have been told not to worry: brands care and are doing the best they can. The problem is their best isn’t good enough and workers can’t wait any longer. It is time to make sure that the garment industry provides not just any work, but decent work to the millions of women and men producing the clothes we wear.