For a few cents more
For a few cents more
The globalized clothes industry makes very big profits but pays workers very little. Anannya Bhattacharjee is a trade unionist from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. She is asking for a living wage. She tells Dinyar Godrej that we need very small changes but people do not want to make them.
Women workers make clothes for fast-fashion foreign brands at a factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh. MEHEDI HASAN/NURPHOTO/PA
Dinyar Godrej: Big international companies look around the world for the cheapest labour. How is this in Asia with the biggest number of clothes workers?
Anannya Bhattacharjee: The clothes industry came to Asia some time ago. And we think it will stay for some time to come. This is because Asia has a lot of advantages - a lot of cheap labour, raw materials, and infrastructure. This means big opportunities to make a lot of clothes.
They make clothes mostly in countries in South and South East Asia. Wages are lowest there. Global brands think regionally – that’s how the global supply chain works.
The global brands see Asia as one region because they can find an average wage there. The countries – India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and others – also try to keep wages as low as possible to get more work. This means wages are very low.
What are conditions like for clothes workers in Asia now?
The fashion industry is changing. ‘Fast fashion’ means that it’s no longer just a few fashion times in a year. Brands make bigger profits by producing too much. They are producing more and more clothes all the time, not just a few times in the year. And they persuade the consumers to buy them when they may have clothes they never wear.
Clothes workers receive poverty-level wages and all of this production causes serious stress for them. Workers are forced to work overtime and produce impossible numbers of clothes. They cannot go to the toilet and they cannot take breaks.
The brands are making the prices they pay to the Asian suppliers lower and lower and so the suppliers’ profits are going down. So we have a fashion industry that is producing so many clothes that consumers cannot buy them and the production is harming the environment.
Workers’ wages are at poverty levels and they have no life. And if people are working all the time – often seven days a week plus overtime – and they are underpaid, then they don’t have time to support a union to help them.
How did the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) start?
AFWA started around 2007. Clothes unions found that they could not increase the wages of workers in any one country. When the union fought for better wages, the suppliers said that (a) ‘We don’t have enough money because the brands’ prices are too low’ or (b) ‘If we increase wages, the brands’ prices will increase so they will take their business somewhere else.’
We said that if Asia is producing most of the world’s clothes, we have to come together and talk with the brands directly.
The labour cost is between 3 and 10 per cent of the price for clothes sold in Europe or the US. Consumers say they will pay a little more for Asian workers to get a living wage.
I don’t understand why brands find this so difficult and always fight against better wages when the money could come from profits or they can pass on the costs to the consumers.
What does AFWA want to do?
One of the most important things for AFWA is to bring the idea of a minimum living wage across countries for the first time - the Asia Floor Wage. We say this is the minimum living wage. The living wage can be higher but not lower.
We said, ‘This is what we want the brands to pay across Asia, so it is not paid in one country against another.’ The supplier factories in Asia should pay the minimum wage of the country. But the brands need to pay the difference between that and the Asia Floor Wage. The Asia Floor Wage is about three times the minimum wage. This difference is a very small per cent of profits. Why not pay living wages for workers to produce your clothes?
AFWA also works on gender-based violence at work.
We don’t look at gender-based violence only as sexual assault but as a result of gender in industrial relations. The global clothes industry uses the vulnerability of the mostly female workers.
If women go to the factory and every day there is physical and verbal abuse, it keeps women in fear. The managers use abuse to meet the production targets on time at a low cost. So, the gender-based violence comes from the way the brands price their clothes.
There is also illegal termination, underpayment, wage theft, and attacks on freedom of association.
What success have you had with AFWA?
Brands now accept the idea of an Asia Floor Wage. This was a big success and it took years. At first they said, ‘We’re already paying the living wage’. In fact, they meant the poverty-level minimum wage. And then they said, ‘Your living wage figure is too high.’
For two or three years they disagreed with us. And now the Asia Floor Wage is there across the industry, and it has the respect of the International Labour Organization.
Now there is big pressure on the brands to do something. So they started a lot of ideas to make them seem generous. For example, a Fair Wage Network. But these ideas are to make them look good.
People who care about clothes workers’ human rights accept that brands should agree by law to pay the living wage. It should not be, ‘We will try…’ That language doesn’t work anymore.
I think these are successes. Of course, the workers are not yet receiving the money. So we cannot say we have won until the workers get their living wage. What is next?
The clothes industry is very difficult to organize but there are many clothes makers unions in Asia. We organize, we fall back, we organize, we fall back. That is the situation.
Asia Floor Wage Alliance is a group of trade unions and labour rights organizations and NGOs. We believe that in an industry like this it’s important that trade unions lead and that others support them with research, campaigns, and the power they give.
AFWA started in Asia but we have partners in Europe and the US. It is very important for us to work with organizations in the Global North. That is where the brands are.
Watch the documentary ‘Living Wage Now!’ - https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=86&v=PxFwA-jw3X4&feature=emb_logo
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)