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H&M is a ‘Promise Breaker’ When It Comes to Living Wages, Say Labor Groups

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) kicked off 2019 with a tweet and a bang.

“That’s it! 2018 has gone by, and with it @hm’s self-imposed deadline to pay 850,000 workers a living wage,” the global coalition of labor unions and workers’ rights groups wrote. “So #HM is kicking off the new year as a full-fledged promise breaker.”

Made in 2013, that so-called promise has become the proverbial millstone around H&M’s neck. Although the Swedish retailer doesn’t own any of the factories that make its clothes, reports that most of its contracted workers live precipitously below the poverty line haven’t painted a pretty PR picture for a company that presents itself as an exemplar of ethical “fast fashion.”

To be sure, H&M has enacted improvements in the interim, including collaborating with IndustriAll Global Union and the Swedish trade union IF Metall to create a Global Framework Agreement to improve workplace dialogue and industrial relations. The company says it has improved its purchasing practices by excluding labor costs from price negotiations in support of fair wages.

In July, the world’s second-largest apparel retailer implemented a new wage-management system, one it claimed will result in better work environments and fairer wages at 500 supplier factories representing 50 percent of its product volume. And last month, H&M convened a Fair Living Wage Summit in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to discuss strategies at an industry level.

But all of this is folderol that distracts from the roadmap H&M proposed in 2013, campaigners insist. Worse, the company appears to have “thrown [it] out the window” altogether, according to International Labor Rights Forum, which launched the #TurnAroundH&M campaign with CCC to hold H&M up to its original ambition.

“H&M is trying to distract from the fact that it no longer plans to pay its workers a living wage, as it promised to do in 2013,” Sarah Newell, a campaigner at ILRF, told Sourcing Journal in July. “Nowhere in the description of the ‘wage management system’ does the company acknowledge that the core reason workers make poverty wages is the downward price pressure exerted by H&M.”

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Workers’ rights advocates point to the language in its 2013 “Roadmap Towards a Fair Living Wage,” which stated that “H&M’s strategic suppliers should have pay structures in place to pay a fair living wage by 2018. By then, this will reach around 850,000 textile workers” in 750 factories, or about 60 percent of its global garment workforce.

Certainly it appears the goal posts have slowly shifted over the years. One concern labor groups have repeatedly raised is how H&M has “watered down” its initial commitment by trading one measurable target (the 850,000 workers) for something less determinate (improving wage-management systems.)

H&M has been steadily rephrasing and diluting the commitment made in 2013,” Neva Nahtigal, a campaign strategist and public outreach coordinator at CCC, wrote in a blog post in April.

Still, Jenny Fagerlin, global social sustainability manager at H&M Group, argues that hurrying matters by skipping vital steps will only result in a “shaky foundation that does not contribute to systemic change.”

“The first steps are all about creating mechanisms, processes and collaborations—as well as a new mind-set,” she said in a statement issued in December. “Indeed, [they are] complex and not very straight-forward things to communicate around, but [they are] essential when it comes to making fair living wages a reality for garment workers. That is what we have been working towards these past five years.”

Fagerlin said H&M never held expectations of fair living wages by 2018, but the retailer can “see some important progress when it comes to wages.”

To the retailer’s detractors, she counseled patience.

“When trying something no one has tried before, there is no silver bullet, no magic button you can press that provides the answer. You need to consult experts, trust your own experience, collaborate with others who share your vision and, most importantly of all, you need to stick to realistic solutions that will create real and systemic change, even if they take time,” she said.  “And you need to be patient. This is how all of us who work at H&M Group are contributing towards our mission of improving garment workers’ wages.”

H&M’s plan, she reiterated, was about creating a “new mind-set” both at its supplier factories and within its own operations.

“It was about implementing the right processes needed to instigate fair negotiations,” Fagerlin said. “It was about finding the right collaborations at industry level that would make it possible to transform the whole industry.”

CCC, which declined an invitation to H&M’s Fair Wage Summit, citing divergent opinions on what needs to be done, isn’t buying it, however. It accuses the retailer of a “general lack of transparency, attempts to erase 850,000 people and a broken promise from collective memory [and] deceptive public claims of having exceeded the goals set in 2013.”

“Correspondence throughout this year, our ongoing #TurnAroundHM campaign and H&M’s responses to the numerous media inquiries in the past months give a clear indication that these 850,000 workers’ crushed hopes are not of concern to H&M,” Nahtigal said last month. “Instead of immediately taking decisive steps to actually fulfill that commitment, H&M has been engaging in all kinds of rhetorical contortion to cover up its failure, trying to pretend that the commitment was never there in the first place.”