We all know by now, that the working conditions within the garment industry, where fast fashion is produced at rock bottom prices throughout Asia, are far from perfect. Workers are forced to work a ridiculous amount of hours every week (well over 60 hours a week is not uncommon) and they get paid almost nothing for it. But then add mistreatment and widespread abuse into the mix and it is a beyond a joke what these people have to deal with in order to support themselves and their families.
The Asia Floor Wage Alliance– an international alliance of trade unions and labour rights activists- recently released three very damning reports which document the details of abuse that is inflicted on the garment workers, the majority of whom are women, every day. The brands under the spotlight for this investigation of widespread abuse were: H&M, Walmart and Gap. These big, worldwide brands all seek to produce their garments in low cost countries, mostly in Asia, not only taking advantage of the low wages, but also the fact that the workers have very few legal rights, and any rights they do have, are often ignored.
The reports consist of research in the form of hundreds of interviews that were conducted with the people working in garment factories throughout Asia, which H&M, Gap and Walmart specifically use for their productions. The information that has come to light is downright appalling.
Workers from 11 out of the 12 H&M supplier factories surveyed for this study As early as 2012, workers organizations began reporting that pregnant women in Cambodia were regularly threatened with dismissal from garment manufacturing jobs. Asia Floor Wage Alliance 66 67 reported either witnessing or experiencing termination of employment during pregnancy. (Precarious Work in the H&M Global Value Chain).
I have picked out a small sample of the violations and abuses that the garment workers have endured while working for these brands are outlined below. These ones have particularly shocked me. I also want to stress, that these issues are not isolated incidents, but in fact part of everyday life for these workers.
- Even after signing the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord three years ago (developed as a result of the Rana Plaza tragedy), H&M still produce in factories that do not have fire exits.
- Illegal short term contracts: workers lack job security and contract won’t be renewed if the worker causes any ‘trouble’. E.g. if they complain about harassment or join a union.
- Workers in India are working up to 8 hours overtime a day, or 17 hours in total, finishing at 2 am to meet production targets.
- Mass fainting caused by high temperatures, high levels of chemicals and poor ventilation. Adding to this, is the worker’s poor nutrition. Due to lack of breaks and money, their calorie intake is half of what is recommended for people working in an industrial environment.
- Women are often subject to violence and sexual harassment from co-workers and managers in the form of inappropriate comments and physical advances.
We often get sick around once a month. We don’t eat enough and work too much trying to maximize the piece rate. Also, we don’t stop to go to the bathroom. We often work through lunch breaks or go back into work early, so there is hardly any time to rest (Precarious Work in the H&M Global Value Chain).
- Workers are not being trained on safety measures or being given appropriate safety gear. Over time, the constant chemical and dust exposure results in the workers contracting serious diseases such as tuberculosis, plus lung diseases.
- Many women are fired during their pregnancy. If not, then they work up until their last day- endangering their live and the life of their baby- and their contract is not renewed when they go on maternity leave.
- Women terminate their pregnancy so they can keep their job.
Unfortunately, there are only two things that these fast fashion companies seem to care about: making millions of dollars in profit and their image. So can reports like these really damage the image of these big brands?
Yes, and no, I would say. Yes, provided that people actually read the reports and that the details end up in the mainstream media. Then consumers could take a stand, vote with their wallets and call for the brands to implement massive changes.
Imagine for a minute, that that was you, or someone in your family, who had to deal with this stuff day in and day out. What would you do? Would it be acceptable then? I am assuming the answer would be a resounding “Hell NO!” But every time you buy something from a brand that operates under these conditions, you are condoning this behaviour.
At work I’m facing stomach pain, digestion and nose problems from sitting long hours working so much overtime, and working so many days. But sometimes I just have to forget my sickness because I have no money. I have to be the rock in the family.—Thai Falla, former employee at Walmart supplier, Kingsland Garment Co. (Precarious Work in the Walmart Global Value Chain)
On the other hand, these reports won’t necessarily damage their images because unfortunately, is it often not the case that such reports end up in mainstream media and all over the news, so the issues go by largely unnoticed.
And then on top of that, they have the power to invest millions of dollars a year in advertising alone, just to get people to buy their cheap clothes. Any violations against humans or the environment in the supply chain are covered up with a big dose of greenwashing. A line of recycled clothing or an announcement about an NGO partnership is pushed into the spotlight by the brand, overshadowing the bad stuff, ensuring that their customers remain loyal, while nothing changes for the better.
Just what is it going to take before these big brands actually stand up and take responsibility for what is happening in their factories?
Note: all images sourced from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance reports