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Big Brands Fail to Pay Living Wages to Garment Workers

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Wage wars have weighed heavily on the global garment industry as workers consistently fight to be paid a fair and living wage. But even the big brands many consumers buy from aren’t paying that living wage.

In a new study titled, “Tailored Wages UK: Are the big brands paying the people who make our clothes enough to live on?” released by Labour Behind the Label, a UK-based campaign dedicated to improving conditions in the global garment industry, a study of forty major retailers found that none of the companies currently pays its workers a living wage, and that only a few are working toward providing better pay.

The report said that half of those surveyed have wording in their codes of conduct that say wages should be enough to meet a worker’s basic needs, but only four brands–Inditex, Marks & Spencer (M&S), Switcher and Tchibo–were able to demonstrate progress in implementing this. And even these four, the report noted, have a long way to go before workers that produce their garments are making a living wage.

A living wage is loosely defined as enough money for a worker to support themselves and their family.

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international alliance of trade unions and labor-rights activists, first published a calculation for a living wage in Asia in 2011, and some progress has been made since then, the report noted.

Eight companies, Aurora Fashions, Bestseller, G-Star, Monsoon, New Look, Puma, Switcher and Tchibo have so far incorporated living-wage benchmarking tools that will allow them to set and reach a wage goal. Some companies have started pricing up what labor costs are for each product and including that as a separate cost in price breakdowns. And Swiss clothing company Switcher is trialing a program where they will pay a wage “top-up bonus,” a 1 percent increase on the price paid to the factory, which will go directly to workers.

The report touts the Asia Floor Wage as a “vital tool in benchmarking what companies and governments should be aiming to achieve in terms of actual wage figures for workers.”

Based on the Asia Floor Wage calculation, a living wage should: be a family wage and consider, and at least partially cover, basic needs of unpaid caregivers in a household; allow for savings; and have a regional approach so as not to increase wage competition between countries, instead increasing the base wage level for all workers.

But changes in wages just aren’t happening fast enough, the report notes, and stakeholders aren’t taking enough initiative to make the changes.

According to the report, “Brands say that it is up to the suppliers and the production-country governments to increase wages in order to ensure that workers have enough. Whereas suppliers say that they are unable to do this because they do not have enough margin to put up wages, and governments say that they cannot put up minimum wages significantly as global production would simply relocate elsewhere. This stand-off can only really be broken by brands’ commitment to a figure.”

Some companies, like Adidas, Nike, Pentland, Asics, Puma and New Balance are working toward paying a living wage by committing to freedom of association. Others, like H&M and M&S have publicly committed to a living wage and remained transparent by publishing strategies and steps to achieve a living wage.

The report noted that in order to reach a living wage, companies must:

1. Endorse the principle of a living wage in their company policy
2. Respect freedom of association
3. Enter into dialogue with unions and labor-rights groups
4. Publicly commit to a living-wage benchmark
5. Amend purchasing practices
6. Conduct pilot programs involving suppliers, trade unions and labor support groups
7. Advocate for governments of sourcing countries to endorse minimum living wages
8. Act in a transparent way
9. Collaborate with other stakeholders
10. Present a roadmap with a concrete timeline for payment of a living wage

“A living wage is a human right. Yet the scandalous truth is that the majority of workers in the global fashion industry cannot afford to live with dignity, and earn no more than £5 [$8.33]a day in an industry worth over £28 billion [46.7 billion] across Europe. Labour Behind the Label believes that no company can truly claim to be working ethically if the people who produce its clothes are paid less than a living wage,” the report’s executive summary noted.

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