Labour Behind the Label
The Clean Clothes Campaign’s United Kingdom-based nonprofit, Labour Behind the Label, is taking action to improve the deplorable work conditions found in factories across the world and provide support to workers in the garment industry. The organization promotes ethical clothing and collaborates with brands and trade unions to push for the reform of systemic problems found in the clothing business.

Change Your Shoes and Labor Rights

Recently, Labour Behind the Label held campaigns to uphold worker rights, such as the “Change Your Shoes” campaign, a project that called for shoe brands to provide greater transparency in their production process. Through its tireless efforts, Labour Behind the Label is working to amend the garment industry, combatting low wages, unsafe working conditions and abusive treatment, thereby holding brands accountable.

According to the organization, Labour Behind the Label is the United Kingdom’s only campaign group dedicated solely to labor rights in the worldwide garment industry. Past activity has included urging retailers to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, pushing for living wages for Cambodian garment workers, and bringing victims of the Rana Plaza factory disaster compensation.

Clean Clothes and Living Wages

The nonprofit was founded in 2001 as part of the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s most prominent alliance of labor unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Labour Behind the Label’s endeavors include raising awareness and putting pressure on companies to support workers’ rights, as well as lobbying governments and policymakers.

The group is currently advancing programs such as the “Living Wage” campaign, working with the Asia Floor Wage Alliance to demand a living wage in Asian garment producing countries. The campaign would help provide garment workers, 80 percent of whom are women, with living wages to cover their basic needs.

Worker Safety and the Shoe Industry

The organization is also holding a “Worker Safety” campaign,” providing compensation for victims of Pakistan’s 2012 Ali Enterprises factory fire. In addition, it has led actions such as a weeklong initiative to lobby brands to ban dangerous practices such as the sandblasting of jeans.

Labour Behind the Label launched the “Change Your Shoes” campaign to look specifically at the operations of the shoe industry. Twenty-four billion pairs of shoes were produced in the year 2013, with 87 percent of them manufactured in Asia. The program has called upon leading shoe brands in the United Kingdom, as well as brands such as Prada, Birkenstock and Camper, to provide information pertaining to their production processes.

The program also asks members of the shoe industry to publish the names and addresses of suppliers, report on steps taken to move away from dangerous chemicals and demonstrate that the companies are providing fair wages and safe working conditions. The campaign has led research and investigations into the manufacturing processes of major shoe brands, observing that the system involves high-intensity labor, short deadlines and worsening living conditions of exploited workers.

Ending Fear and Silence

In many countries, there is a climate of fear and silence in the production chains. The project acknowledges that some companies, such as Nike and Adidas, have already begun to publish information about its processes and will hand its petition to brands to promote change.

Through projects such as the “Change Your Shoes” campaign, Labour Behind the Label is taking action to bring about fairer conditions in the garment industry worldwide. The organization is working to hold companies more accountable and create transparency in the industry, demanding living wages and calling for safer work environments in the clothing manufacturing business.

Ongoing Positive Change and Accountability

Labour Behind the Label’s activism has led to the creation of “codes of conduct” for companies, as well as “ethical trading” initiatives, which have promoted the annual inspection of factories. Labour Behind the Label acknowledges that sweatshop abuses are an elusive and deeply ingrained problem, as there are no easy solutions. But through its advocacy, campaigning, and research, Labour Behind the Label is taking steps to galvanize change in the clothing business on an international scale.

– Shira Laucharoen
Photo: Flickr

Fast Fashion
The fashion industry used to be “four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11, 15 or more.” This phenomenon is resulting in “fast fashion.” Currently valued at $1.2 trillion, with more than $250 billion spent in the U.S. alone, the fashion industry has exploded as increased wages have increased demand. With this overload in consumption, there is inevitably much waste which damages the environment and exploits poor workers.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 15.1 million tons of textile were created in 2013. More than three out of every four garments has been incinerated or put in landfills. Traditionally, the U.S. has tried to reduce waste by selling used clothing to countries such as Pakistan, India, and Russia. With the strong dollar and increasing availability of cheap clothing from Asia, however, demand for secondhand clothing has decreased. As a result,  large amounts of waste needed to be taken care of.

The fast fashion industry also imposes an immense burden on the environment. The industry produces “10 [percent] of global carbon emissions and remains the second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil.” Producers consume nearly 70 million barrels of oil a year in just the production of polyester fiber and dump 1.7 million tons of dyeing chemicals into the environment. The industry also goes through an estimated 1.5 to 2.4 trillion gallons of fresh water a year, polluting much of it and damaging both human health and the environment.

While recent progress has created worker empowerment, the use of cheap labor in the fashion industry has been marred by tragedy. In 2013, a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. Like other countries experiencing immense poverty, Bangladesh would “see its economy collapse” without the textiles industry. Brands such as Gap, Adidas and H&M have also been criticized for using child labor, paying wages of 50 cents per hour and demanding 10-hour shifts. With other options only as good as intensive agricultural work, many uneducated women find these abusive jobs as their best options. Workers also have had very little leverage in negotiating their working terms and so have less job security.

As all these issues continue to be exposed, however, progress will continue to be made. Since the factory collapse, registered trade unions in Bangladesh have increased from three to 120 and wages nearly doubled. As consumers have grown warier, smaller brands have emerged to promote the “slow fashion movement,” where people shop for quality over quantity and buy products made of sustainable materials. Larger brands have also sought change. H&M and Patagonia launched trade-back programs where customers can send in unwanted clothing that will be recycled and sold again. Nike has also worked to eliminate child labor and improve working conditions.

Although it is always great to see businesses take the initiative in improving the fast fashion industry, the ultimate dictator of change is the customer. Customers are the deciding factor in what companies produce. If the purchasing culture changes to one where customers primarily value how companies have treated its workers and the environment, then the necessary change will follow.

Henry Gao

Photo: Flickr

Bangladesh has become synonymous with low paid garment workers. Bangladesh boasts more than a $20 billion garment industry that employs four million workers in 4,500 factories. Most of the workers are women—who make up 80 percent of the garment workforce.

Garments produced in Bangladesh export to western clothing stores like Wal-mart and H & M.

Serious accidents within the factories, as well as strikes and protests, have brought the plight of garment workers to a more international level. Specifically the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in April 2013—in which 1,120 garment workers were killed—which caused national and international outrage.

This incident led the Bangladeshi government to increase the minimum wage by 77 percent, up to 5,300 taka ($68) a month. Workers are also now allowed to form unions without factory owner consent.

Even with this pay raise, Bangladeshi garment workers are some of the lowest paid in the world and many are calling for better regulation in terms of workers safety and physical health.

Change is slow though, as this past January, news reports showed that almost 40 percent of garment factories were not paying the promised wage increase of $68 a month.

Strikes, accidents and failure to increase monthly pay are apparently the norm when it comes to garment workers in Bangladesh.

However a small victory was won this weekend when an 11-day hunger strike successfully received the back pay and holiday bonus workers were demanding. The strikers represented 1500 workers from five different factories in the Dhaka’s Badda district that all belong to the Tuba Group.

The strike was not completely uneventful as last Thursday workers were forced out of the factory where they were staging the strike. Police used tear gas and batons to remove the 400 strikers.

But this past Sunday the workers finally received their back pay. The strike began on July 28 and luckily only had to last 11 days.

This is only a small victory within the larger fight of fair wages for garment workers. The garment industry is central to the Bangladeshi economy and the global supply chain forces large companies to demand competitive wages.

Bangladesh competes by offering extremely low wages that companies can pay their workers. So although the success of this strike is a step in the right direction, Bangladesh has a long way to go if it wants to begin treating its workers with fairness and dignity.

Eleni Marino

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Reuters, CBS News, The Express Tribune, Australia News Network, The Guardian
Photo: The Guardian

When people buy from brands like Nike and shop at stores like H&M and Gap, they do not pay much attention to how the products arrived at the stores. In many cases, these clothing products are produced in sweatshops in developing countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Almost half of the population in Bangladesh lives off of less than a dollar a day.

Garment workers in Bangladesh toil day after day under extremely harsh conditions for low wages, sometimes handling dangerous chemicals with their bare hands and inhaling toxic fumes due to poor ventilation in many factories.

In April of 2013, an eight story building in Bangladesh called Rana Plaza collapsed leaving over 100 dead and over 2,000 injured.

The poor conditions of the factory itself and the lack of safety precautions taken to ensure its workers’ well-being were neglected and therefore led to the collapse. In addition to this incident, there has been a history of factory mishaps over the past couple of years in Bangladesh. In November of 2012, the Tazreen garment factory in Bangladesh caught fire and killed 112 of its workers.

At this time, the factory was producing goods for Walmart.

Besides the incidents themselves, it is also important to focus on the working conditions and the violations of human rights that happen daily in factories like these. According to the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, workers in the Tazreen factory work 72-81 hours per week. Their salary depends on their sewing skill; senior sewing operators earn at minimum 23 cents per hour and junior sewing operators earn 21 to 22 cents an hour.

As a majority of the workers are women, abuse is common and some are even denied maternity leave — blatant violations of human rights that have been occurring for years. Even after one tragedy, further precautions are not taken to ensure the safety of the workers.

An article from the Daily Mail accounts a Canadian journalist who worked undercover in Bangladesh and witnessed the atrocities of one of the smaller garment factories. She reported that when she first arrived at the sweatshop, a nine-year-old girl named Meem was in charge of training her.

The article also noted that there were “no fire extinguishers, only one exit – the front door – and little more than a hole in the ground, down a rat-infested hall, for the toilet.” These accounts present the harsh reality for many garment workers in Bangladesh.

Violations of human rights are happening elsewhere too—most recently in Cambodia. Workers there have started protesting in the city Phnom Penh for higher wages.

Sometimes people take things for granted because they are easily accessible. Organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign have been established to spread awareness of this issue and to help those who have been detained for protesting for higher wages and better conditions. By not purchasing products from companies who outsource their work unfairly to other countries, a better future can be created for garment workers whose human rights have been violated.

– Kenneth W. Kliesner

Sources: BBC News, The New York Times 1, The New York Times 2, The Epoch Times
Photo: Demotix

One bystander was killed and 20 people were injured when police clashed with protesting garment workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 12, 2013.

Workers at the SL Garment Processing Ltd. Factory, one of the largest in Cambodia and a supplier to many western brands including Gap and H&M, marched from the factory towards Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Phnom Pehn home to protest unfair wages and poor factory conditions. They were, however, blocked by police at Stung Meanchey bridge. Reports differ on which side started the violence, which escalated to more than 100 police officers firing tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition into the crowd, who were armed mainly with rocks and sticks. Police arrested 37 people, including seven monks, who were later released.

The march marked the three-month anniversary of 4,000 workers walking out of the SL factory to protest the presence of armed military police, which they viewed as an intimidation tactic meant to expel unions. Company shareholder Meas Sotha incited rage among workers with his claim that police were only there to protect the factory. SL 2 joined the strike, demanding raised salaries as well as a $3 per day lunch stipend and Sotha’s ousting.

Conditions in Cambodia’s more than 500 garment factories, though better than in some areas of the nation, are dismal. Wages are low—workers at SL, for example, make just $75 monthly—and factories are unsafe, with poor ventilation, recent collapses and regular fainting masses of malnourished workers. About 500,000 Cambodians work in garment and shoe factories, supporting the industry that accounts for 80% of the country’s exports. In 2012 alone, Cambodia exported $4.45 billion in products to the United States and Europe.

The protests erupted at a time of international attention on the garment industry following several deadly incidents at factories in Bangladesh, including a factory collapse at Rana Plaza that killed over 1,100 people in April. According to the New York Times, many multinational organizations are now looking to Cambodia as an alternative to factory locations in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, in Cambodia, strikes are frequent, though factory concessions are small and rare.

Workers at Alim Cambodia Co. Ltd. blocked a road in Phnom Phen on November 13, 2013 also protesting for higher wages. The demonstration was short-lived, breaking up due to rain when protestors became concerned they would get sick.  The Alim protestors were demanding a $1 lunch stipend, and were angry that the factory was paying new workers $93 monthly to their $89.

The Cambodian government has made few efforts to back garment workers, and seems largely indifferent to workers’ rights. In fact, government-official-mediated talks about wages between unions and SL ended in a deadlock.  Although the Cambodian People’s Party raised the monthly minimum wage from $61 to $75 earlier this year, reports by the local Community Legal Education Center and United Kingdom-based organization Labour Behind the Label found that a single garment worker needs at least $150 monthly to cover basic needs.

The United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) released a report calling for the compliance of the Cambodian government and garment companies in improving workplace conditions in the garment industry, specifically concerning fire safety, child labor as well as worker safety and health. The ILO also announced in September it plans to continue the practice of “naming and shaming” factories that violate the law.

Sarah Morrison

Sources: The New York Times, NPR, The Cambodia Daily: Garment Worker Clash, The Cambodia Daily: Protest, AlJazeera, AlJazeera America