A new report from a London-based anti-poverty group has cast doubt on Uniqlo’s corporate-social-responsibility claims of “making the world a better place.” In This Way to Utopia, published Thursday, War on Want called out the Japanese apparel chain for driving a “race to the bottom” by working with supplier factories in China characterized by precarious working conditions, excessive overtime, pittance wages, and oppressive management.
According to a series of undercover investigations War on Want’s partner, Hong Kong’s Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour, or SACOM, at least four of Uniqlo’s so-called “ethical” factories consistently defied Chinese labor law and the retailer’s own code of conduct.
UTOPIA OR DYSTOPIA?
Writing in the introduction of the 28-page paper, War on Want chairperson Steve Preston described a marked disconnect between the “utopia that Uniqlo presents to the public” and the actual experiences of the garment workers its supplier factories employ.
“Worse of all has been the strategic crackdown on workers who fight back,” he added, noting that workers in China are not allowed to organize in trade unions of their choice.
China is the undisputed leader of the global garment export industry, with an annual haul of some $187 billion per year.
Workers interviewed by SACOM complained of 17-hour days, seven days a week, with few breaks.
But despite labor-law reforms in recent years, and the second-highest minimum wage in the region, labor groups say that the Chinese government has omitted “crucial rights”—such as freedom of association and the right to organize and collectively bargain—that would engender real change for workers.
Uniqlo, which is owned by Fast Retailing is unique among its high-street peers.
Unlike, say, H&M, whose vast if fragmented supply chain is spread over 35 countries, over 90 percent of Uniqlo’s product is manufactured in China alone.
Workers interviewed by SACOM complained of 17-hour days, seven days a week, with few breaks. “Sometimes I work for one to two months, till 11 p.m. or even midnight,” a worker from Dongguang Crystal Knitting and Garment Company told investigators. “I start at 7:30 a.m.”
SACOM said it discovered that many workers were paid between $196 to $231 per month, or well below the minimum wage for the region, meaning that overtime work was necessary to barely meet basic subsistence.
Not that this was always worked.
“Statutory provisions on overtime stipulate that workers are to be paid double their wages for working overtime on weekends, but wages for the workers in these factories were being calculated at one and a half times the basic wage,” the report said. “The law also provides that if the worker, whose wages are calculated by piece rate, is required to work overtime, the employer has to pay the worker for his/her overtime or extra shift wages not less than 150 to 300 percent of the normal piece rate wage. However, it was found that workers working overtime were being paid the standard piece rate.”
Contradicting Fast Retailing’s claims that it takes the “utmost care to protect the health and safety of its employees, in compliance with national laws,” SACOM found that workers at Pacific Textiles in Guangzhou City and Tomwell Garment Co. in Dongguan were often subjected to extreme temperatures, lack of protective gear, poor ventilation, the use of toxic chemicals, and high risk of electrical leakage.
“It was found that the temperature on the knitting floor of one of the factories was 38 degrees Celsius,” said the report. “Workers had no protective gear and some male workers were observed working topless, whilst women workers were seen working in sweat-drenched clothes. Workers in the dyeing department were expected to work with fabric loads of up to 600 kilograms in high temperatures with no protective gear, risking burns or chemical exposure.”
Workers were often subjected to extreme temperatures, lack of protective gear, poor ventilation, the use of toxic chemicals, and high risk of electrical leakage.
At least one facility had its ventilation switched off during the duration of the investigation, increasing the workers’ risk of developing byssinosis, a lung disease caused by prolonged inhalation of dust from cotton and other fibers.
“Furthermore, cotton dust is combustible and has been the cause of dust explosions in textile plants in China,” SACOM added.
Few of War on Want and SACOM’s allegations are new. SACOM outlined similar violations in January 2015, prompting Fast Retailing to conduct its own investigation of the offending factories—Luen Thai Garment Co. and the aforementioned Pacific Textiles—and admitting finding a number of red flags.
Follow-up investigations by SACOM, however, found that while certain violations, such as extreme overtime and the lack of ventilation, had been rectified, more serious ones, including toxic-chemical exposure, scant safety measures, and non-living wages, “had been left to persist.”
“On the one hand Uniqlo says that it will not conduct business with factories that fail to adhere to its code of conduct which protects workers’ rights. Yet the four supplier factories investigated showed that there were widespread labor rights abuses that flouted Chinese labour law, as well as Uniqlo’s code of conduct,” the report said. “Uniqlo has consistently used its CSR to portray an image of a caring, ethical brand…yet [it] is just one brand within a global system where fashion brands have evaded responsibility for workers making their clothes and get away with talking about their commitment to working conditions.”
Together with SACOM, War on Want is calling for greater supply-chain transparency, beginning with a public list of Uniqlo’s supplier factories.
“War on Want is also supporting the call for binding international legislation to hold corporations to account and end the impunity with which corporations operate,” Preston added.
Ecouterre has reached out to Uniqlo for comment and will update the story if we hear back.