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Labor Activists Challenge H&M’s Living Wage Claims

H&M says it has “reached and exceeded” the Fair Living Wage Strategy targets it established in 2013. But the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) begs to differ.

The quarrel between the fast-fashion retailer and the labor-rights consortium is a longstanding one, but it ramped up after 2018 came and went without H&M fulfilling its original promise of paying 850,000 of the workers who make its clothes a living wage. H&M, activists say, has prevaricated on what was an unequivocally stated ambition.

The Swedish company keeps shifting its goal posts, CCC noted in a statement earlier this month. H&M has removed the original roadmap documents from its website, leaving in their place an edited version that omits several commitments, including a pledge to work with local governments to identify a living-wage level and a “vision” that all workers employed by its commercial goods suppliers should earn a living wage.

“There are many more examples of how H&M has been changing its story through the years by removing some inconvenient facts and distorting others,” CCC wrote. “In this way, H&M has built the foundation for making the outrageous claims of having exceeded the goals, while workers and their families continue to live in poverty.”

In its latest sustainability report, H&M claims its work on the Fair Living Wage Strategy has reached 655 factories and more than 930,000 garment workers in 10 countries. Today, it said, 67 percent of its product volume is made in factories that are implementing improved wage-management systems. At the same time, 73 percent of its product volume is made in factories that have democratically elected worker representatives in place. And 93 percent of H&M’s business partners now see the company as a “fair business partner.” (It assesses this figure on an annual basis through anonymous supplier surveys.)

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But CCC doesn’t see how these benchmarks relate to “actual wage improvements” for workers. Celebrating key performance indicators such as democratically elected worker presentation can even be problematic.

“In Bangladesh, for example, where H&M is the largest buyer, these worker committees are not allowed to negotiate on wages. In that light, presenting this as an achievement in relation to H&M’s living wage commitments is clearly misplaced to begin with,” CCC said. “Moreover, there are serious downsides to this form of worker representation in comparison with effective formal union representation, yet the narrative part of the sustainability report refers to the two as if they were interchangeable.”

The retailer, CCC said, “fails to acknowledge” that worker committees often include factory management or are influenced by management in other ways, including playing roles during elections. There is also evidence from Human Rights Watch that worker participation committees in Bangladesh have “been used to thwart unions.”

“Regardless of how much money and brainpower H&M pours into its corporate communication, it is an undeniable fact that workers at H&M supplier factories are still far from earning living wages,” CCC wrote. “Instead of doing so, H&M is trying to evade responsibility and focusing on successes that have little or nothing to do with what was described in the original roadmap and with actual wage improvements for workers.”

In a statement to Sourcing Journal, H&M said change isn’t instantaneous.

“To make fair living wages a reality for garment workers around the world, there are certain steps that must be taken first. If you skip those steps because you are eager to hurry things up, you will end up with a shaky foundation that does not contribute to systemic change,” said Ulrika Isaksson, the retailer’s senior press officer. “The first steps are all about creating mechanisms, processes and collaborations, as well as a new mind-set. Indeed, complex and not very straight-forward things to communicate around, but nevertheless essential when it comes to making fair living wages a reality for garment workers.”

Though H&M never held expectations of fair living wages by 2018, it has accomplished “important progress,” including making wage data publicly available.

“The H&M group has [for] several years had a dialogue with Clean Clothes Campaign and even though we respect their opinion and share the same vision, we disagree on how to best achieve progress,” Isaksson said. “We listen to recommendations from the [International Labour Organization] and the global trade union IndustriAll on how a company such as ours should address this complex issue. They support our way of working, and we will continue to listen to them.”

CCC isn’t swayed by the retailer’s protestations, however. It wants to see H&M publish up-to-date information on wages paid at each supplier factory, not the “untransparent aggregate data” for a few countries. Doing so is the only way progress toward specific wage-increase targets can be properly quantified.

“We are here to remind H&M and everyone else that a few nice pictures and individual stories in the sustainability report cannot make up for lack of tangible progress in the form of a living wage appearing on workers’ pay slips,” it said. “H&M should take these calls seriously.”