Fast fashion is inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. 80% of garment workers globally are female, and a fundamental tenet of fast fashion is cheap labour producing the clothes. Fast fashion is a feminist issue: it fundamentally relies on unfair pay and poor working conditions, which women often don’t have any other option but to accept.
Picture factory workers making your clothes. Likely to be women from the Global South side-by-side in a big factory, right? These women often are unable to find work elsewhere because of their lack of education and because of the sexist nature of many jobs in their countries. In India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other countries, women are not seen as “fit” to work in agriculture, for instance.
They can’t “just leave” as some might suggest they do, because there is nowhere else to go, and they need what little income they can get from this job desperately. They cannot protest, because there are rarely any unions. They cannot fall back on legal systems, because they are often informally employed.
The information is fuzzy, because the industry purposefully doesn’t want customers to find out what goes on behind the scenes in their supply chain. Leading fashion brands benefit from the low pay of garment women workers: it quite literally goes straight into their profits.
But we can change that, with our consumer choices.
Now that we’ve painted the picture, let’s delve into the underlying issues behind garment manufacturing, which disproportionately impact women.
Unfair wages, which don’t meet needs
Why are garment workers often underpaid?
Developing countries are competing to produce for multinational brands by offering the lowest costs and the fastest and most flexible production. In a labour-intensive industry such as that of garments, this is mainly achieved by making labour cheaper and more flexible, that is, by paying lower salaries, pushing for longer hours, and reducing work and environmental standards. Countries therefore often have low legal minimum wage, which is below the living wage. In reality, a lot of the garment workforce is unofficially employed so this would not apply anyways.
The terrible statistics (that we know of)
It’s really hard to get a unified study on garment worker wages, but many examples point to the same unfortunate fact: garment workers are severely underpaid, across the world.
In Asia, according to the Oxfam Report “What She Makes”, 99-100% of fast fashion workers in countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam work for less than a living wage. The living wage is the remuneration received for a standard workweek by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family.
In Turkey, a study by The Clean Clothes shows that Turkish garment workers are paid only a quarter of the living wage.
In Africa, Dr. Sheng Lu’s study shows that Ethiopia, the fastest-growing African economy, has the lowest wages in the global textile industry. In an effort to attract foreign investors, Ethiopia has implemented the lowest minimum wage of any garment-producing country: only $26 per month, or about 23 euros.
Overall, women are also paid less than men for the same work. Often, higher-skilled tasks such as cutting are done by men, and where products require higher technical skills to produce, women have been squeezed out of garment manufacture by men, who have more opportunity to learn the new skills (Carr, Chen and Tate 2000).
Poor Working Conditions, putting health and safety in danger
Not only are many garment workers poorly paid, but they also work in hazardous conditions, with really long hours, and no benefits whatsoever.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April 2013, which killed 1,134 workers, and injured 2,600 workers (many for the rest of their lives), was a wake-up call for the garment industry. There’s been more activism since, and some clear improvements, but we’re far from fair and proper working conditions.
In some factories, women aren’t allowed to go to the toilet, for fear of being inefficient. In others, fire safety doors are shut so that nobody can leave before their shift is up. Many work over 60-hour weeks. Not to mention the sexual harassment and abuse that has been reported time and time again.
On top of this, COVID-19 significantly impacted garment workers and factories. Many workers were laid off, without severance pay or even payment for worked months. Moreover, it led to an increase in home-based garment workers, who are employed under even more precarious conditions. The Clean Clothes Campaign research from July 2021 showed that garment workers globally are owed 11.85 billion USD in unpaid income and severance from March 2020 to March 2021.
No, they don’t have a choice
That was a grim reality check. Now for the myth bust:
No, these women rarely have a choice.
Often poorly educated and in desperate need of income, women cannot find jobs in other industries, which they are secluded from. Trapped in a cycle of poverty, they don’t have the stable income to look for a different job. Juggling caring for their families and 60+ hour work weeks, they’re also unable to organise themselves in protest, or educate themselves for a different job.
These companies take advantage of women’s unequal position in society to pay them less, under terrible working conditions.
WE as consumers DO have a choice
We can make a difference through where we choose to buy our clothes. We can choose to stop ignoring this awful reality. And we can contribute in activism on the topic.
At culthread, we know that our workers are well paid and well treated, because all culthreads are handmade in our own atelier in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We don’t allow any subcontracting.
Our wages are aligned and above the Asia Living Wage and Global Living Wage, both guidelines on relevant living wages. Our working conditions include maternity and paternity leave, limited work hours (at 48 hour weeks) and with rest breaks included in these. They are insured and represented by the grassroots trade union.
We’re an example which demonstrates that we can and we should treat workers fairly. We also firmly believe that having strong loyalty within our workforce actually increases our profitability. So let’s stop arguing that “brands need to do it to make profits.” There’s never a good excuse to treat people badly.
Watch out for our follow-up blog post about brand responsibility in factory issues later this year!
Statistics on shockingly low garment industry minimum wages can be seen here
culthread’s people policies here