It’s no secret that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting and socially unregulated in the world. We’ve talked about it before here and here. But, aside from the dedicated work of Fashion Revolution and a few well-known documentaries, there hasn’t yet been many in-depth investigations into the lives of garment workers working for fast-fashion brands in developing countries.
That’s now changed with Oxfam’s new report Made in Poverty: The True Price of Fashion and their What She Makes campaign. It shed some light on the clothing sold in shops in Australia. The study, which bases its findings on interviews with over 470 garment workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam, reveals the harsh poverty stats that deny the people who make our clothes a decent life. Ready to read the disturbing findings? Then read on.
They don’t earn enough
According to the study, interviews show that workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam working for brands like Big W, Cotton On, Target and Kmart earn below a living wage (that’s enough cash to cover basic essentials like food, housing, transport, education and healthcare.) Some were revealed to earn as low as 51 cents an hour and found that 100% of surveyed workers in Bangladesh and 74% of those in Vietnam struggle to earn enough to eat, forcing them to regularly skip meals, eat poorly or have to take out a loan just to put food on the table.
One of the most heart-wrenching revelations of the report is the effect on female garment workers and their families. For many, sending their children to school (or even living near them) is impossible. In Bangladesh, 1 in 3 workers interviewed is separated from their children, with nearly 80% of those cases due to a lack of adequate income.
Separated from family
Behind the stats and figures are, of course, individual human stories, a few of which Oxfam shares in their findings. Take Tania, a 21-year old garment worker and single mother from Bangladesh. She works up to 12 hours a day in a factory in Dhaka, earning a grand total of $169 monthly. If you live in Singapore, that’s likely less than your monthly CPF contribution. She had to send her baby to her parents as she couldn’t raise a child in a factory. Unfortunately, she now only sees her daughter twice a year. Moreover, her living accommodation is a room the size of 1.8 by 1.5 metres.
The price of cheap fashion
Oxfam reps also interviewed factory operators, owners, managers and union leaders and examined the pressures they feel. Usually, fast-fashion Australian-based brands want to keep costs low and therefore, prices in the shops cheap. Brands negotiate fiercely on pricing, ignore safety regulations and squeeze lead times which means longer hours for workers at short notice. Side note: Will that now make you think twice about buying that Cotton On dress for $15?
“Australian brands are an integral part of the system that keeps these women trapped in poverty. They have the power and must take steps that will enable these workers to lift themselves out of poverty. This can be done through ensuring the payment of living wages that allow workers to buy enough nutritious food, live in decent housing, send their children to school and get healthcare when they are sick,” says Dr Helen Szoke, Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia.
Without a doubt, profitable international brands need to step up and pay workers living wages now. Solely because they can and are simply choosing not to. According to another report in 2017, Oxfam stated that if the cost of an average piece of clothing increased by just 1%, it would ensure workers in garment supply chains earn a living wage. This price increase is negligible to privileged consumers like you or me.
This issue is not just unique to Australian brands, either; it’s systemic and happening everywhere, including brands operating in Singapore and the rest of Asia. The fast-fashion industry thrives off exploitation, profits from poverty and actively operates in ways to keep wages low.
Support those who support their workers
At ZERRIN, as part of our mission to empower and inspire you to make more conscious choices, we’re proud to raise awareness of brands that support and up-skill their workers, pay fair or above living wages, or work with community partners to alleviate poverty (discover labels like Baliza, Esse or Eden+Elie).
Beyond this, though, we have to wake up now to the ugly truth behind a lot of clothing production. We must campaign together for a more equal, inclusive and fair fashion industry. It can only start by truly acknowledging the issue as consumers and citizens. Most importantly, we must demand change from brands, many we’ve grown up with and whose clothes hang in our closet. And of course, it goes without saying that no-one, anywhere, should have to suffer to make our clothes.
Susannah is a fan of prints, sunshine and dogs. The founder of ZERRIN, she's passionate about making sustainable style accessible, inclusive and empowering for all.