Six years ago British multinational retailer Marks and Spencer promised to pay a living wage to workers who make the company’s goods by 2015, starting with Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.
The promise was part of its Plan A sustainability commitment published in 2010 in which M&S said it would “implement a process to ensure our clothing suppliers are able to pay a fair living wage in the least developed countries we source from.”
But now a new report says the retailer has hardly made good on its goal.
Labour Behind the Label released the report saying, “M&S suppliers in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, despite efforts, continue to be paid poorly, forcing them to live in abject poverty, sharing slum housing and often working illegal levels of overtime – up to 110 hours a month over contracted hours.”
The workers’ rights organization analyzed wages at M&S suppliers in the three countries and found that no workers were earning a living wage and, in many cases, are making far less than half of what they need to sustain a basic living.
In Sri Lanka workers’ salaries averaged 13,500 rupees per month ($93.74), while workers estimate that a basic living wage would be closer to 33,000 rupees ($229.15).
Living conditions were poor among workers with 75 percent having no access to running water, many sharing an outdoor toilet with 10 or more workers. Sixty-percent of the workers were in debt, many despite the fact that they’re—illegally—working up to 100 hours of overtime each month.
Verbal harassment, gender discrimination and unspecified wage deductions were among the major problems for workers in India where the average wage among M&S suppliers was 6,284 rupees ($92.24). Workers said they would need at least 13,000 ($190.81) on average to support themselves and their dependents. Sixty-percent of workers in India are in debt and monthly payments and interest can run as high as 2,000 rupees ($29.36).
Apart from being in debt, M&S workers in Bangladesh are living in slum housing and many have to buy groceries on credit each month, the Labour Behind the Label report noted.
Workers were earning an average of 8,000 taka ($102.05) including overtime hours, but the estimate for a living wage was a much higher 15,000 taka ($191.35).
“Despite the recognition M&S has achieved as a more ethical company here in the UK, it seems M&S’s Fair Living Wage has not made a significant impact on the workers employed to make their goods,” the report noted.
An M&S spokesperson told The Guardian, “There’s always more to be done due to the complex nature of the clothing supply chain and we cannot determine the wages paid to supplier employees. However, we are committed to ensuring our cost prices remain high enough to pay a fair living wage, training workers in financial literacy and worker rights, and playing our part in collaborating with other brands and governments to improve the sector.”
Labour Behind the Label also looked into whether H&M was on track with its own living wage promise. The fast fashion purveyor said it wanted to have improved pay structures for paying fair living wages in place by 2018.
In looking at the retailer’s suppliers in Cambodia, report researchers found that wages had increased but still not enough to call a living wage. Average take home pay was $187.97 a month though workers said it would take an estimated $230 a month for them to “live with dignity,” i.e., be able to support their basic needs without having to borrow or go without.
Workers in some factories were subject to piece rate systems and leaving many to work through breaks and making them prone to exhaustion.
In short, the report called the efforts of each retailer a “fail (so far).”
“Although a lot of noise has been made by both H&M and M&S about their intention to improve wages, there has been little sign that this is actually making a difference to workers,” the report noted. “Even assuming their efforts to encourage wage increases were genuinely meant, it will always be difficult to have an identifiable impact if other buyers in each factory are not on board.”
Collaborating with unions and other brands, as H&M has started to do, is one way the researchers say things could shift in the living wage department, provided brands are willing to engage and negotiate with local unions.
Transparency, of course, will also be key.
“There is a clear need for greater transparency to ensure company commitments are backed up by fact,” according to the report. “It is not sufficient for companies to be able to make claims about key human rights issues without supplying the quantifiable data that allows these claims to be independently checked, and for workers and consumers to hold them to their promises.”