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The plight of garment workers

Photo: Wolfgang Lonien CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo: Wolfgang Lonien CC BY-SA 2.0

Fashion is truly global industry. Worldwide, 1.2 billion people are involved in this industrial behemoth, fulfilling roles including design, distribution, cotton production, sewing and modelling. The globalised nature of fashion means that the problems of pay, conditions, abuse and safety that face one worker in Bangladesh will be instantly recognisable to a garment worker in a factory Haiti or China.

Garment work (the snappily titled cut, make and trim (CMT)) accounts for 40 million people, most of whom are based outside of the countries where the clothes they produce are purchased. 85% of this mammoth workforce is female. 

The many and varied issues facing garment workers worldwide are discussed by Kim in this week’s guest blog.

Overworked and underpaid 

Garment workers are often not paid enough to be able to support their families. Photo: marissaorton CC BY-SA 2.0Garment workers commonly work under extreme pressure: they are expected to be quick, accurate, careful and to complete up to several hundred garments a day under the watchful eye of the production floor supervisors. It is not unusual for the supervisors to be armed with batons. As more clothes are bought year on year (the global garment industry was worth over 1 trillion USD in 2014), the pressure to produce garments cheaply rests on the shoulders of factory floor workers.

Many garment workers do not earn enough to cover their rent or buy sufficient food for a month, let alone save any money to help support their families. A typical garment worker’s wage across Asia varies from £42 and £60 per month. This is not enough to begin addressing basic human needs, it is estimated that wages need to be closer to £200 per month to begin alleviating poverty. Food is one of the first things many low-paid workers will do without, in order to pay rent and care for dependants. Being both exhausted and undernourished leaves workers even more at risk of suffering an accident at work.

Almost all supervisors, line managers and managers are men, and women are routinely denied access to higher paid jobs. Women are considered easier to intimidate and it is assumed they are less likely to question management or defend themselves. Women will most likely be found on the sewing floor of a factory - this is still considered women’s work. The cutting part of the CMT process is mostly fulfilled by male employees who commonly work with better equipment in a safer and temperature controlled environment. As cutting is considered a more highly skilled task, men are paid more.

A pressurised environment

On the never-ceasing production line, workers will be allowed on average 15 minutes to sew a 5 pocket pair of jeans. This single pair of jeans will pass through the hands of several employees as it is completed. With brands seeking to drive costs ever lower, workers are expected to produce garments in less time and to work longer hours for a salary that rarely goes up and doesn’t match increases in the cost of living. Factory bosses are under pressure to respond to these near impossible demands because brands can quickly switch production to a factory on the other side of the world; there is no benefit to them to build relationships and remain loyal to one particular producer.

Conditions in garment factories have led to a lack of specialisation and have removed any skill or sense of pride in the work involved. Garment workers are expected to work on just one small part of the process - sewing side seams, hemming or inserting zips - it is very rare for one worker to complete a garment from start to finish. By restricting the skills of workers, factories can justify low wages, in part, by labelling workers as unskilled. This suppression of skills also makes it impossible for workers to develop the knowledge to operate their own tailoring business; it keeps them reliant on the factories for work.

CMT is a 24/7 industry; the working day is routinely split into two long shifts of 11 hours each. Working one of these shifts, often without a break, would be physically demanding on its own. During times of peak demand, workers are often expected to work back-to-back shifts. Working long shifts with few breaks adds to the inherent dangers of production: severed fingers or crushed limbs are a far more likely consequence if workers are exhausted.

Workplace safety

Factories are notoriously dangerous places to work. Building maintenance and fire safety are often neglected and there are too many workers crammed into each room. Sanitation is poor, with overflowing toilets being commonplace and access to water restricted during working hours. Workers also have to battle poor ventilation leading to sweltering temperatures and exposure to the fumes released by chemicals. Each production floor is deafening with so many machines in operation at once, meaning that sounding an alarm, offering advice or even holding a conversation are near-impossible.

Overcrowding is a huge issue. In an industry where factory fires are common (either as a result of hot machinery and stray fibre, poorly installed electrics or a faulty boiler), the decision to routinely lock workers into a room for the duration of a shift is worrying. It means that situations quickly become disastrous, leading all-to-frequently to needless loss of life.

The Rana Plaza disaster 

Just how close to the edge of disaster the whole industry sits was brought home in 2013 when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Workers in the factory had been complaining for months that they could see large cracks in the buildings, there are even reports that workers tried to speak to management about the problem on the very day of the collapse.

Rana Plaza collapse
The Rana Plaza factory collapse cost 1,129 people their lives. Photo: Rijans CC BY-SA 2.0
The dangerous condition of the building was so apparent that service sector workers in other areas of the complex were told not to come into work due to safety fears. Despite this, on 24th April 2013, Rana Plaza, a densely-packed garment factory employing thousands of mostly young, female workers, collapsed. 1,129 people were killed. Over 2500 were injured. Despite making global headlines, in the year following the Rana Plaza collapse the fashion industry made record profits.

There are no fixed safety standards for garment factories. Even where codes of conduct and recommendations exist, these are rarely enforced. Following Rana Plaza, 150 companies took the unprecedented step of working together to form the Bangladesh Safety Accord. The Accord, which is legally-binding and was produced with input from trade unions, is aimed at making supplier factories safer. The legally-binding aspect of the Accord sets it apart from previous attempts at reform. Unfortunately however many companies have refused to sign – many of them companies behind brands found on high streets all over the world.

Workplace abuse

In 2010, War on Want conducted a survey of 988 female Bangladeshi factory workers. Of these, around half report being beaten; three-quarters had experienced obscene language; 297 women reported sexual advances and 290 had been touched inappropriately. These figures, if applied to the 35 million female garment workers worldwide, are staggering and highlight that, even without serious safety concerns and low wages, garment factories are a dangerous and threatening place to work.

Many factory bosses have launched an offensive against pregnancy. Pregnancy, delivery and childcare take women away from the factory floor, costing employers money. Some employers force women to take the contraceptive pill or to undergo pregnancy tests in order that the factory can avoid paying maternity leave. This stark violation of human rights is unfortunately common practice in many parts of the world.

A tough life for mothers

Children are frequently raised by family members, often many miles from the city, as their mother is required to work long hours and factories rarely provide childcare facilities. Due to the demands of work and the way in which employers ignore the rights of parents, some women are unable to be present in the home often enough to breast-feed their baby.

What can be done?

Shopping mall
Clothes made by poorly treated garment workers are sold in shopping malls all over the world. Photo: Santiago Barreiro CC BY-SA 3.0
There is no impetus on retailers to work with factories to improve conditions. The garment sector is calling out for a fully unionised workforce - it might be the only realistic way of improving standards and conditions within the current framework. Following Rana Plaza, more workers’ unions were established in Bangladesh. However, workers who attempt to join unions still face physical and verbal threats and the prospect of having their contract terminated.

The garment trade is a long way from meeting expected workplace standards and the industry is still a long way from achieving any semblance of gender equality. This is a problem relevant to us - products of the garment industry are mostly bound for Europe, North America and Australia. The companies that feed the cycle of poor wages, unsafe working conditions, poor treatment of female workers and suppression of union activity are brands we all recognise.

Only through questioning our consumer habits and stopping to think about why clothing might be so cheap in the first place, can we begin to effect change that will spiral down the chain and impact on the lives of those who make our clothes.