Those trendy clothes you bought came at a price; the price of unfair wages and inhumane working conditions.

Photo: Sam Woolfe

Photo: Sam Woolfe

In Britain, the average person spends an estimated £1042 per year on clothes, slightly less than what one would spend on eating food at home per year. This phenomenon is the product of fast fashion, a term used to describe retailers producing new designs weekly at inexpensive prices. The low prices mean that many consumers can afford to stock up their closet often; however, do we stop to think about what went into the production of the garment?

Brands such as Nike and Zara were exposed to have used sweatshops. The working conditions at sweatshops involve extreme heat, poor air quality, low wages and long work hours. Very often, these garment workers are women who work for up to 14 hours every day of the week. Their pay is approximately £25 per month (80 pence per day) in Bangladesh, significantly lower than the minimum amount of approximately £45 for a living wage.

The concept of a living wage and a minimum wage must also be differentiated: a living wage is what is needed for education and family needs, in addition to food and shelter. Very often, both values of a living wage and a minimum wage do not correspond, with the minimum wage below the living wage.

Many of these sweatshops do not adhere to the legal minimum wage, as revealed by Bangladeshi factory workers. These garment factories retain their prices low so that they can win contracts from brands. As a result, workers work long hours to compensate for the low wages.

Bangladeshi garment workers shout slogans during a protest on wage increases in Dhaka on September 21, 2013. Photo: AFP

Bangladeshi garment workers shout slogans during a protest on wage increases in Dhaka on September 21, 2013. Photo: AFP

Sweatshop workers in countries such as Cambodia and Bangladesh often do not have adequate support from unions or the government to seek help from, and neither do authorities enforce their regulations that protect these workers. The unions in these countries also do not carry enough weight and are not respected by the government. The lack of awareness of rights and the fear of consequences that might arise from speaking out are cited factors inhibiting the workers from reporting their employers.

Moreover, brands are complicit in perpetuating the inhumane working conditions in the pursuit of profits. Brands often claim to be unaware of the inhumane working conditions of where their apparels are made. Brands commonly subcontract these sweatshops, making it hard for the brand to be traced back and identified.

5 years ago, Clean Clothes campaign surveyed brands such as H&M and their stance on fair wages. Recently, when it was followed up on all the brands who claimed that they intended to improve wages, no evidence was found that the brands lived up to their word.

In 2018, reports revealed that Adidas’ factory workers in Cambodia earned 64 pence per hour for a £110 Manchester United jersey. This makes it hard to believe that Adidas, valued at £19 billion, has little power to improve the working conditions of their workers. It possibly suggests that these brands feel no urge to achieve fair trade.

A photo showing workers working at a readymade garment factory in Dhaka. Photo: New Age photo

A photo showing workers working at a readymade garment factory in Dhaka. Photo: New Age photo

Activists from Clean Clothes Campaign also argue that paying workers a living wage would not pass on a significantly higher cost to their consumers because their wages only make up 1% to 3% of the total cost of most garments. Campaigners behind Labour Behind the Label claimed that for H&M to raise their Cambodian garment worker’s wages to a living wage, it would only cost them 1.9% more to their revenue; this is equivalent to just an additional £60 per worker a month.

One proposed solution is for the government where the factory is located, to impose that the minimum wage matches the living wage. The government could also make it mandatory for brands to publish supplier’s factory information for greater transparency and consumer awareness.

Furthermore, the apparel brands could pressure factory owners to pay their workers a living wage or to form a union for their workers. Sweatshops also supply to multiple brands and one brand’s demand on the sweatshop may not carry enough influence. That is why an industry-wide effort must be made.

As consumers, we can play our part by purchasing from Fair Trade certified brands such as Patagonia. A Fair Trade certification ensures that certain conditions, such as paying a living wage, are met for their business. It also guarantees that the factory workers directly benefit from the extra money.

Perhaps the real question is: if we as consumers – who hold the strongest influence- really want to make a change and shop for ethical brands.