On December 10th the world celebrated Human Rights Day. It was on this day in 1948 that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A worker’s right to receive a living wage for their labour is an integral part of that declaration, with Article 23 clearly stating:
“Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity…”
Our commitment to these standards will determine what kind of world we leave for future generations. Nowhere is this commitment more important than in the global garment industry. With roughly 40 million people employed in this industry it has the potential to affect the most lives by adhering to better labour standards.
As it stands right now, poverty pay is one of the most pressing issues in the garment industry. Studies show that the sale of a $5.00 t-shirt in Canada results in only $0.12 making it to the worker who produced the garment. At under 3% of the product value it is one of the lowest proportions of compensation given to a worker for their labour.
The garment industry has been guilty of moving production from one developing country to another, following poverty to wherever labour costs are the lowest. I’ve personally witnessed this trend and the repercussions it has on the local industry. In the early 2000s my father ran an apparel sourcing office in Pakistan, working with American and European clients as they placed their garment orders in local factories. One by one the customers began moving production to China, Bangladesh and even Central America in search of cheaper labour and the Pakistani garment industry was left struggling- a blow from which it never truly recovered.
Poverty wage forces workers to work long hours to earn overtime or bonus pay. They cannot refuse unsafe working conditions as the lack of work often throws them into deeper poverty. Fast Fashion has exacerbated this problem. With an ever-increasing demand for more garments delivered in shorter timeframes, the pressures on garment workers is becoming untenable.
In these turbulent times, where social justice issues have taken on added importance, the garment industry is facing considerable consumer backlash. The ‘who made my clothes?’ campaign by Fashion Revolution is an example of a grassroots campaign that was organized to make big fashion brands accountable for their labour practices. The FairTrade network is another example of an organization working to alleviate worker suffering and forcing companies to adopt a greater degree of transparency in their supply chains. Although more active in helping farmers receive fair wages for cotton farming, the FairTrade network is also taking significant steps in addressing worker rights issues in garment production.
What can you as a consumer do to tackle this problem?
As another Human Rights Day passes by I’m reminded of a quote by Nelson Mandela : “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life …”
Let us all contribute to this act of justice by ensuring that the people making our clothes are allowed a life of dignity rather than poverty.