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Leading Clothing Brands Talk About Living Wages, But They’re Still Not Paying Up

Fashion brands are happy to support living wages—in theory, at least. Putting their money where their mouths are, however, seems to be an entirely different matter.

Despite the majority of brands that have made some form of commitment to wages being enough to meet workers’ basic needs, very few are following through in a measurable way, according to Labour Behind the Label, a workers’ rights group based in Bristol, England.

In fact, “no major clothing brand” has been able to quantify that any workers making their garments in Asia, Africa, Central America or Eastern Europe are paid enough to lift themselves out of poverty, the group wrote in “Tailored Wages UK 2019,” its latest report about the state of pay in the global garment industry.

Labour Behind the Label reached out to 32 leading brands across luxury, sportswear, fast fashion and online retail, including Adidas, Amazon, Boohoo, C&A, Gap, G-Star Raw, H&M, Inditex, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, Nike, Puma, Under Armour and Uniqlo. Only eight of them have benchmarks to measure if wages were sufficient. Just as many don’t have any way of determining whether this level is covered in prices paid to suppliers.

All but one received the bottom-most E grade for showing “no significant documented evidence” of a living wage being paid for any of its workers. Just one scored higher than that: Gucci, which was given a C grade for demonstrating that, for some Italian production at least, 25 percent or more of its workers earn a wage that can support a family living in the South and Central regions of Italy.

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Active support for freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining is just as lacking.

In survey responses, no brand was clear about how they verified genuine trade union representation versus worker committees. And no brand had an independent process for all countries that could be shown to address grievances.

“We asked brands if they had a policy to only do business with suppliers who actively promoted freedom of association,” wrote Anna Bryher, the study’s lead author. “No brand was doing this.”

Voluntary brand initiatives, such as the Fair Labour Association’s Fair Compensation Programme, the Fair Wage Method and ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation), Bryher noted, don’t appear to be making any headway. Certainly, they’ve done nothing to to compel brands to significantly increase the prices they pay.

“When we look to groundbreaking agreements like the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, we wonder what it would be like if brands signed legally binding, enforceable agreements to commit to delivering a living wage through purchasing practices and negotiation processes,” Bryher said. “This needs to be explored.”

Labour Behind the Label had conducted a similar study in 2014, based on 40 brands, yielding equally dismal results.

“Five years on, we had hoped to find more to report back,” Bryher said. “Our message to brands is that workers can’t wait any longer. Human rights are pressing and vital. We need a living wage now.”