The atrocities that occur in sweatshops around the world have been well-reported in the last couple of years, particularly since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013. The conditions of these workers in developing countries are unimaginable. But what if I told you that very similar things are happening right here in Australia?

The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) are driven by worker’s rights and justice in the Australian textile industry. Michele O’Neil, the elected National Secretary, and her team of dedicated staff and activists, fight to ensure the textile workers in Australia receive fair treatment and are fully supported by the law.

Most people probably don’t even realise that we still have a textile industry in Australia. Although it has become smaller over the last 25 years, Michele says there is still a thriving manufacturing industry around the country, with Victoria and New South Wales being the two largest production states. Mostly these factories are operating in capital cities and in surrounding suburbs, but regional areas are also still important for the industry.

But it is difficult to determine exactly how many people are working in this industry because as Michele explains, “There are regulated workers in factories, but then thousands more who work from home. So the figures are unreliable and under-reported,” Michele continues, “When we refer to only the regulated part of the industry, the current figures are about 40,000 garment workers. But we think there are thousands more who are working from home.”

“Teachers have told us about the children, because they are really tired at school and even falling asleep in class because they had to get up early or stay up late to work.”

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What is the difference between a sweatshop worker and a homeworker or outworker? Surely being able to work from home means much better conditions. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although the outworkers may not experience the same health and safety issues as the factory workers, they still face other challenges.

Due to unreasonable demands being placed on them by the brands and giving deadlines that are impossible for one person to meet, meaning their children and other family members are forced to help out. “Teachers have told us about the children, because they are really tired at school and even falling asleep in class because they had to get up early or stay up late to work,” says Michele. If the deadline is not met (meaning if the children don’t help), the work will be taken away and given to someone else. What choice do these poor families have?

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It turns out, that unfortunately the working conditions of textile factory workers in Australia are not a whole lot better than those in developing countries. Migrants, who come from countries such as Vietnam, China and Africa, are exploited by Australian garment manufacturers who want to produce their goods for the cheapest price possible. These workers arrive in Australia, often without adequate English language skills and have no idea what their rights are, so they just accept everything that the company tells them.

The difference between Australia and some other garment producing countries in Asia is that the Union has the legal right to enter factories, to talk to workers and make sure they know their rights in regards to things such as health and safety, payment and other entitlements. The Union also connects with the thousands of outworkers who work from their own homes, as Michele says, “We have strong connections with many migrant community organisations. Over the years, we have also run a variety of programs, such as English language classes- we go into the communities where workers are living.”

Michele emphasises that building connections with workers and connecting workers with each other “is a really important part of what we do. Then they realise they are not isolated.”

“Some people say that conditions and pay should be reduced so that we keep work here in Australia. But we think the opposite is true.”

And unfortunately the cases of exploitation in the industry are not isolated either. Workers are being denied their basic rights, such as not getting paid superannuation, not getting proper breaks or remuneration and not being given leave entitlements. On top of this, they are being forced to work in an unsafe environment, where their lives and health are put at risk on a daily basis. Just as we have heard of cases in Asian factories, workers in Australia are also being locked in the factory for the duration of their shift, being denied the use of toilets or made to use filthy bathrooms. Such conditions couldn’t possibly exist in a well-developed country such as Australia. Quite the contrary, as Michele explains, “It is literally something we find in workplaces every day of the week.”

Many consumers see the ‘Australian Made’ label and assume that it stands for quality and clean supply chains. Why is this not common knowledge in our own country? Why do we only hear about the exploitation overseas?

Michele believes there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, due to the mass media coverage of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh “consumer attitudes in regards to labour conditions have changed dramatically,” but Michele goes on to explain the flip side, that “unfortunately the media coverage has led to the perception that the problems are only in poor, developing countries.”

“I don’t think this is an area of interest to them (the Federal Government) at all, they just turn a blind eye to what is happening in the industry.”

The other reason for lack of information in Australia is the shortage of media coverage and public interest in the situation. “The coverage here comes and goes,” says Michele, “Sometimes the media uncovers what is going on, or the Union will provide them with information, which leads to a story, but it is hard to keep it in the public eye and it all depends on how much attention the story receives”

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But even without interest from the media and the general public, how do companies in Australia get away with subjecting their workers to such horrible working conditions? In developing countries, a big part of the problem is that they don’t actually have the legal framework to support them. So what is the excuse here?

“There is no legal excuse,” explains Michele, “Basically, companies think they can get away with it.” These days, the textile industry suffers from a severe lack of transparency and companies do all they can to avoid taking responsibility for what happens in their supply chain. Outsourcing jobs is now common practice, which means the supply chain becomes very broad and complex and therefore difficult to keep track of. “We’ll find a company who might give work to five different factories, then we go there and they have given it ten other smaller ones, then they have given it to homeworkers and so on,” explains Michele, “Companies use this as a way to distance themselves from their responsibilities to the workers and handball it to someone else, although legally, they are still responsible.”

“We don’t want to be known as a country that mistreats workers.”

The TCFUA, along with other activists around the world, are constantly campaigning for the companies behind the labels to be held accountable for every step in their supply chain. In Australia, the TCFUA has had many important wins through campaigning, one of these being the introduction of a world-leading piece of legislation that allows underpaid homeworkers to go all the way up through the supply chain to the retailer in order to recover their entitlements. This is something that the Union closely monitors and when they discover exploited and underpaid workers, they make sure they are supported through the legal process.

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“But it is a very resource intensive process, with thousands of workers in a whole lot of small workplaces and we have to uncover them,” says Michele, “Often they are really fearful that if they get their rights, they will lose their job, so it is a big step for them to want to fight for them.”

The legal framework is there and the TCFUA are doing an extreme amount of work to support the workers, but Michele explains that they are lacking the support of the Federal Government. “I don’t think this is an area of interest to them at all, they just turn a blind eye to what is happening in the industry,” says Michele. “In fact, the current Federal Government cut all funding to Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), which is a joint initiative between the TCFUA and industry that accredits brands who are prepared to let us check that they have a transparent supply chain.” The initiative results in many more exploited workers being helped, as we as consumers having peace of mind that what they are buying is genuinely ethical.

Clearly, the TCFUA are doing amazing work behind the scenes of Australia’s textile industry, despite the many challenges they face from companies, the lack of government support and minimal awareness of the public. “We are constantly trying to defend the rights that we have won for the outworkers, because there is an attack on the conditions of the workers” says Michele, “Some people say that conditions and pay should be reduced so that we keep work here in Australia. But we think the opposite is true. We think Australia should be proud to say that we have an ethical and sustainable textile industry. This should be the selling point for Australia around the world- we don’t want to be known as a country that mistreats workers.”

The little known truth about sweatshops in Australia
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