Students queried how they could tell the difference from the label to know if something had been made by an ethical producer. Liz explained there were no easy answers but “a boycott is not the answer as it would lead to workers not being paid. Poor working conditions are endemic throughout the industry. It is impossible to tell a clean factory. This is not just at high street level. There is a case in Turkey involving Prada at the moment. What we recommend is that you write to the MD of the company and saying ‘I am concerned about the rights of the workers making your clothes…’ The issues are really complicated. Get the information and make your own mind up.
You cannot tell how ethical a product is by price, but any company that promotes low prices drives down prices in the industry. As a consumer this is really challenging and if you are a student the decision to buy jeans for £4 or £30, is harder. But by consuming lots of cheap goods you are contributing to this cycle. Though be aware dearer brands might not be ethical. Join a campaigning organisation to encourage labels to bring about the changes. Inform yourself, ask questions, talk to your friends and family. Consume and buy consciously.
Another question concerned the extent of hand sewing of crystals, beads and embellishment and the lighting conditions this work was undertaken in. Liz explained that there was not much done in the factories. “There is lots of hand embellishment in India but a lot takes place in the home. These workers are at the bottom of the supply chain and most vulnerable.”
Liz outlined the organisation of the global supply chain, with the brand headquarters and designers at the top of a pyramid. The brand’s regional office was next in line and they dealt with factories and sub contractors and agents. Agents subcontracted to factories, who subcontracted work again and home based workers would be at the very bottom. Factories received supplies of components from other factories overseas, so the yarn might be from a Korean producer, be woven and dyed in Taiwan, buttons from China, et cetera. The rights and conditions of all these workers matter.
“Improvements are happening where workers have contact with the factory agents. The worst problems are down the scale as work is subcontracted. Brands often have contracts saying that factories must not subcontract, but they still do. In some cases the suppliers make a loss to retain otherwise profitable contracts, with Primark, for instance.
We need to emphasise purchasing practices. We need not just compliant workplaces but compliant supply chains. Current practices create a cycle of problems. The faster pace of fashion demands short lead times. Suppliers struggle to meet demand and so subcontract and use vulnerable groups, working high pressure shifts where workers are even in trouble for taking toilet breaks. Flexibility and seasonality are also a problem. Contracts are not specified in advance, so there is no long term security, workers are only offered repeat short-term contracts and pressured to work excessive overtime. Cheap fashion entails falling factory prices, leading to low wages, unpaid overtime and health and safety cutbacks.
One of the things we ask brands to do is work together. Through bringing companies together in multi-stakeholder initiatives, trade unions and non-government organisations can work together to develop ways to improve things. We have projects working with the Ethical Trade Initiative which provides a safe space for discussion. Non membership is significant but membership is no guarantee of compliance. Different companies address the problem differently. Some have an ethical trading team and a buying team but they are not integrated. Suppliers actually listen to buyers.”
Liz quoted Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation, referring to Gap: “If after a dozen years of frantic activity … the lead player has not rid its supply chain of children, what does this say about corporate responsibility?” She emphasised, “It can not all be done by workers and unions. Governments in producer and consumer countries have a part to play in securing change, as do brands and consumers.”
Students queried if conditions were covered up and concealed from designers. Liz explained that buyers and technologists would travel to factories whereas designers don’t usually go. Kalpona added “The audit system is really poor and not transparent. Another weakness is the workload of inspectors. There are only 200 to inspect, but there are 4740 garment factories, plus shops and supermarkets. Twenty-nine Members of Parliament are garment factory owners."
Liz continued, "Union busting is rife. Members have been moved, sacked, blacklisted, jailed, given death threats and actually killed. As a consumer you can’t see the long working hours and low pay. Inspectors go in with a list but this can be got round. Many factories have duplicate sets of accounts for auditors, workers are coached on what to say and there is an implicit threat of loss of job for workers revealing any problems. Buyers can be complicit in this. They just want to carry on trading and don’t really want to know. Brands need to police issues like child labour.”
So what are the alternatives? Liz suggested, “Slow Fashion is inspired by the Slow Food movement and is about linking pleasure and awareness with responsibility. A key aspect in our over-consumption is that we have removed the beauty and pleasure from fashion. We wear our clothes for aesthetics, to express ourselves, et cetera and it is not just about labour, but everything taking longer. An emphasis on quality would lead to workers spending longer on a garment, being paid more and taking pride in creating. It is an undefined concept but it is about designing, producing, consuming and living better. For further info on sustainable fashion see Kate Fletcher's website and blog.
It is about having a connection with the making process, but I have concerns about the idea of local being about this connection. We have exploited the people of Bangladesh and we have a responsibility towards them. Climate change will impact disastrously on many of the countries making our garments. It is a matter of glocalisation not globalisation.
Speed is just not about everything taking longer. There is a paradox about clothes being made to last sitting in a landfill for years. If you want something to only be on trend for a month make it biodegradable or truly recyclable. If this is what we want we should not use mixed fibres. I like the idea of emotional durability. Not only my own attachment to my clothes, but valuing them, customising them and passing them on. I took some other speakers who had worked in the garment factories of Bangladesh to Primark and they were shocked to see clothes just strewn on the floor. These people worked for practically nothing and this was such a symbol of our disregard.
Forced labour is another problem. This is not pure slavery – it may be that the family is in debt so allows the child to work in the factory to pay it off. Migrant workers face problems as commonly workers ID documents are withheld as they are not paid for two or three months, so they have to keep coming to work, no matter how bad it is. The current economic crisis has hit consumption and there are already reports of workers being dismissed. With factories closing down, workers will be finished with pay owed and no severance pay.”
Babul Akhter, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Garments & Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), spoke of his experience working in garment factories from 1992 to 1995. The first factory he worked in closed with three months wages outstanding unpaid. He went with other workers to try to find out how they could get help and was given legal assistance from the union. When he joined another factory, he was sacked and blacklisted when he made protests about conditions. From 1995 he worked for the union and then the federation. “As General Secretary I negotiate national agreements with the government and factory owners. Most of the work we do is for the garment office. 76% of Bangladesh’s income comes from the export of garments and these workers are neglected. Only 200 factories are unionised and only 20 to 25 have freedom of association. We are trying in every way to implement worker rights.”