Another day, another searing indictment of the capitalist machine we call “fast fashion.” Ahead of the International Labour Conference in June, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international consortium of trade unions and labor-rights groups, has released a series of reports about human rights and labor abuses in the global supply chain. For the garment sector, the organization chose to highlight Gap and H&M, two of the world’s largest apparel retailers. And its conclusions, suffice to say, are less than flattering. Western brands like Gap and H&M, according to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, “wield the potential to transform working conditions through their supply chains” in the developing world. Yet neither have produced the results to match their claims of social responsibility, supply-chain transparency, and respect for human rights.
MIND THE GAP
In the race to the bottom, Gap emerges looking worse for the wear. While the company, which owns the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Athleta brands, has committed to raising the minimum hourly pay rate for U.S. employees, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance notes that it has not extended the same consideration for its workers in its overseas factories.
In fact, mere months before Gap pledged to increase the salaries of its American workforce in 2014, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights accused the retailer of “cheating the poorest workers in the world,” in violation of its own code of conduct.
Women who make Old Navy children’s clothing are arbitrarily fired and denied paid maternity leave or outstanding legal benefits, the institute wrote in its report of Bangladesh’s Next Collections factory, where Gap and Old Navy garments comprise 70 percent of its production.
Next Collections workers are forced to work 14- to 17-plus-hour shifts, seven days a week, yet are paid only 20 to 24 cents per hour, the institute said. Those same workers are “visibly sick and exhausted” from the excessive overtime, which can result in workweeks of 100 hours or more. They live in “miserable poverty in tiny primitive hovels” and run out of money for food by the third week of a month.
A 20-year-old miscarried at seven months because of the arduous labor, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights added. She was reportedly working on Old Navy jeans.
“Working conditions like those reported in Next Collections are far from isolated incidents,” the Asia Floor Wage Alliance said. “Gap lags far behind other brands in their commitments to decent work and safe workplaces.”
The group highlighted, in particular, the company’s neat refusal to sign the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh after the multi-factory Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,134 workers and injured thousands more in April 2013. Instead, it opted to latch onto the voluntary and more loosely regulated Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which counts Walmart, another target of labor groups, among its members.
“To date, Gap has refused to make a contractual commitment to work with their suppliers and local and international trade unions to ensure that repairs are made and workers have the right to refuse dangerous work,” the Asia Floor Wage Alliance said. “Rather than upholding rights and work for garment workers overseas, Gap maintains high-pressure sourcing models within the garment global production network that create overwhelming incentives for factories to reduce costs and speed production by ignoring labor standards.”
H&M, according to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, fares a tick better in the social responsibility rankings.
But although the Swedish retailer has distinguished itself by committing to “living wages,” safe working conditions, and maintaining high labor standards, its adoption of an even higher-pressure sourcing model than Gap’s only drives factories to cut further corners.
H&M says it plans to open 425 new stores this year alone. That’s a lot of empty racks to fill.
Then there is H&M’s authenticity, or perceived lack thereof.
Quoting Athit Kong, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, the group said that H&M’s PR spiel “rings hollow to workers who are struggling everyday to feed their families.”
“A sustainability model that is put forth and wholly controlled by H&M but is not founded on genuine respect for organized workers and trade unions on the ground is never going to result in real change for H&M production workers,” Kong said. “Instead, it serves as a public-relations facade to cover up systemic abuse.”
In a survey of 50 workers from five factories in India and 201 workers from 12 factories in Cambodia from August to October 2015, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance found that overtime wasn’t just a regular occurrence, it was expected.
Workers in Cambodia reported overtimes of at least two hours every day, while Indian workers claimed to toil at least 9 to 17 hours daily.
At India’s Jak Group facility, workers are “routinely required to work until 2 a.m. in order to meet production targets—and then to report to work at 9 a.m.,” the group said.
Workers also reported discrimination in maternity benefits, in violation of their country’s laws. In all four Cambodian factories surveyed, all 50 workers reported that women are fired from their jobs when they become pregnant. Likewise, Indian workers from all five factories said they witnessed or experienced termination of employment mid-pregnancy.
In addition, the report describes problems with freedom of association, low wages, and fixed-term contracts that fail to protect workers of from unfair termination.
Workers employed by India’s Jak Group reported being forced to terminate employment after eight to 10 months before rejoining as new workers.
“This process systematically denies workers access to benefits associated with seniority—including raises and gratuity,” the Asian Floor Wage Alliance said.
Equally egregious are the widespread safety issues. (We’ve documented the H&M’s laggardly progress with fire-safety repairs at its supplier factories at length.) In India, only two out of the 48 workers interviewed received any safety equipment. None reported receiving training on safety measures.
“Among these workers, some were engaged in hazardous production processes. For instance, workers employed by Jak Group and engaged in leather work are exposed to toxic chemicals and required to use heavy tools that cause injuries,” the report said. “Workers reported that they were given no masks, no first-aid boxes were available and that supervisors callously dismissed injuries.”
There’s plenty more to wade through in the two reports, but the gist of the matter is that life as a third-world garment worker for the major apparel chains is no life at all, no matter how good the commissioning brand’s intentions.
More than ever, we need to know #WhoMadeMyClothes.