Bangladeshi garment workers who are attending the Pathways for Promise program at the Asian University of Women.
International Women’s Day is on Friday. It’s a day when we get rah-rah about lifting up women and girls around the world. And you know how we will do that? By paying a living wage.
Women’s rights are deeply tangled with exploitation by the fashion industry. Globally, about three-quarters of garment workers are women. And guess what? International Women’s Day was actually founded to honor garment workers. According to Quartz,
“The first National Woman’s Day, a precursor to International Women’s Day, took place in the United States in 1909. It honored a garment workers’ strike the year before, in which women protested the poor working conditions, low wages, and sexual harassment they faced—and it predated by two years the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, in Manhattan.”
That sounds awfully familiar.
Take the latest in a pattern of Exploitative Feminist T-shirt scandals, in which The Guardian discovered that “Spice Girls T-shirts sold to raise money for Comic Relief’s ‘gender justice’ campaign were made at a factory in Bangladesh where women earn the equivalent of 35p [USD $0.45) an hour during shifts in which they claim to be verbally abused and harassed.” Some machinists were apparently paid the equivalent of $107 a month for a 54-hour work week. That’s nine hours a day for six days of work.
What this article failed to mention was that $107 a month is above Bangladesh’s newly raised minimum wage of $95 a month.
This scandal ––and most media around exploitative wages in garment factories, is a missed opportunity to talk about the gulf that yawns between minimum wage and a living wage. It misses the fact that the wage that was slammed is technically legal but still exploitative. It fails to mention that we haven’t even figured this out in America. I haven’t seen nearly as many outraged headlines that say, “Revealed: Big Macs made in Texas restaurant that pays staff $7.25 an hour.”
But the U.S. federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is half of what it should be. According to a beautiful story at The New York Times about what happened when a city in California raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, a living wage has been shown to be “an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect.” The story focuses on a male immigrant from Guatemala, but it also showed what happened when a female hospital worker was accidentally paid $3 more per hour: she went shopping for healthy food.
In short, getting paid below a living wage makes people feel powerless and small no matter where they live. But that feeling is compounded when you’re a woman living in a country where many men believe that women should be powerless and small, and treat them that way.
What Is a Living Wage?
As you can imagine, deciding what is a “basic decent” standard of living can be a fraught process, and different organizations use different methodologies.
The Global Living Wage Coalition, which includes Fairtrade International, GoodWeave International, the Rainforest Alliance, and Social Accountability International (SAI), uses the research of experts Dr. Richard Anker and Ms. Martha Anker to define and measure living wages for areas all over the world. It doesn’t set a country-wide minimum wage, because what it takes to support yourself can drop remarkably if you drive one hour outside the city center. (If you’ve ever dreamed about ditching San Francisco for Oakland, you get it).
Here’s their definition (bolding mine):
The remuneration received for a standard workweek by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family. Elements of a decent standard of living include food, water, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing, and other essential needs including provision for unexpected events.
- A worker should be able to earn this wage in a normal workweek without doing overtime
- It should be a decent, minimum, basic standard of living. Keep in mind that what basic and decent looks like to you (a bathroom with hot water for your family) might look very different for a Bangladeshi worker (a shared, sanitary pit toilet shared among several families. Yep, that would be an upgrade for many.)
- A worker should earn enough not only to support themselves, but their family.
- But on average, another person in the family will be working at least part-time and contributing to living expenses.
- They should be able to afford to shop at the local market for ingredients for a nutritious, regional diet.
- It takes into account deductions for taxes, etc.
- They should still have a little bit extra to put away for emergencies
Some organizations disagree with some of these assumptions. For example, maybe a single mother should be able to support her children on her wage alone, without relying on another family member to work part-time. There is a tension here, because there is a legitimate fear that if wages are raised too much, buyers will just go to another, cheaper location. Or, inflation and rents will rise in tandem. Or, many garment workers will just lose their jobs altogether. So, GLWC believes the fairest way to calculate the living wage is to spread it out across the average number of workers in a family.
But again, you could reasonably disagree on this point, and many others. Still, this is a great start. GLWC has done these calculations all over the world, and you can look up their results by country. They hope that local labor unions will use their calculations in their negotiations.
So for example, the living wage in the manufacturing districts surrounding Dhaka, where the factory who made those faux-feminist t-shirts is located, is estimated to be $162 a month in US dollars. Union officials are demanding the nation’s minimum wage be raised to the equivalent of $190 USD a month, which is what the living wage would be for workers living within Dhaka proper.
Why Don’t Fashion Brands Just Pay More?
OK, so we know, more or less, what brands should be paying their workers.
We western consumers are often told that our most powerful and easy path toward a better world is through purchasing from better brands, and that fashion brands can just decide to pay garment workers more –– if we pester them enough.
This debate emerged again at the end of last year, when H&M received a flogging in the press. Back in 2013, they had promised that, “H&M’s strategic suppliers should have pay structures in place to pay a fair living wage by 2018.” They didn’t say that everyone in their supply chain would be paid a living wage, but that they would have “pay structures in place.”
Semantics? When it comes to something like this, semantics matter. By the end of last year, by their own estimate, 67% of H&M’s products were being made in factories that were implementing improved Wage Management Systems, and 73% of their product was being made in factories that have democratically-elected worker representatives in place. But none of the workers are being paid a living wage. H&M’s workers in Bangladesh earn on average 49 US cents an hour, or about $105 a month. The Clean Clothes Campaign led the charge of disappointment with H&M’s overpromising and underdelivering. “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,” they said.
But other fast fashion brands are worse. According to a February Oxfam report focused on brands that sell in the Australian market, garment workers who produce for brands including Kmart and Target earn on average 51 Australian cents per hour, or 39 US cents. And yes, this is on them. “They undertake fierce price negotiation, often jump between contracts instead of working with factories over the long term, squeeze lead times for orders and operate with a separation between their ethical and standards staff and their buying teams, who negotiate directly with factories,” the report said.
Meanwhile, a recent report out of India says that women working out of their home embroidering clothing destined for Western markets can earn as little as 15 cents an hour. (The local living wage is about 59 cents per hour for a 54-hour workweek.)
On its face, it seems like a simple and obvious decision. Garment workers paid below a living wage? Just take money out of the enormous marketing budget or from the CEO’s ridiculous salary, and pay the garment workers $3 more per day. Boom. They’re making a living wage. After all, that’s what Amazon and Walmart (to a lesser extent) did for their American workers.
Sadly, the fashion industry doesn’t work quite the same way. Amazon and Walmart directly employ the people they’ve decided to pay more. Save for a few small, notable exceptions, fashion brands do not own the factories they produce in. They work with independently-owned businesses who are entitled to make their business decisions within the legal framework of their home country. (And sometimes, they make decisions outside of the legal framework if they can get away with it.) Brands draw up and attempt to enforce elaborate contracts that stipulate all sorts of things around ethics, pay, parental leave, hours and overtime, subcontracting, etc. But, their practical control over a factory in a country with a different culture, legislation, and enforcement mechanisms is limited.
Plus, each factory is often “shared” by many fashion brands. So, in practice, H&M could go to a factory and say, “We want you to pay your workers more, so we will pay you more for the clothing you make.” Then, the factory has to figure out how to increase hourly wages while the workers are sewing H&M shirts, then drop them when they switch to sewing Walmart shirts. That’s if it’s an honest factory. The factory owner and managers could decide to pocket that extra money for themselves.
I heard a story late last year that has stuck with me as a perfect example of this complexity. Kash Ahmed is a Bangladesh-born, UK-educated fashion professional who, after working for British fashion brands, created his own private fashion labels that are manufactured in Bangladesh. Splitting his time between Dhaka and London, he has a foot in each world, and was moved by the issues in his home country to create what he calls a “coworking” garment factory space called Project Workforce. He once himself tried to just “pay more,” offering to add on 30 cents more per piece if the factory would agree to raise the wages paid to its garment workers. The garment factory agreed. He found out later that they had simultaneously raised the price of the lunch served in the factory cafeteria, effectively clawing back all the additional money paid to the workers.
“I do not want to make the factory owner sound like the villain,” he told me later by email. “I just wanted to show that the problem and solutions are more nuanced than what it looks like from the outside. Wage issues are for sure critical, but increasing them requires a lot of time and agreement from multiple stakeholders.”
So, How Can We Get to a Living Wage?
I’m not going to even pretend to have a solution to this whole mess. Because it seems that no one does, not even the experts. “There has been huge challenges and questions in regards to implementation,” Stephanie Wilson, Senior Manager of Strategic Programsan at SAI, told the audience at a Berlin fashion week talk on living wage last summer. “How in the world could we actually pay a living wage? Suppliers say there is no way they can pay more, their profit margins are too low. Brands think it’s too difficult as well to contribute to the cost of the living wage. Nobody has found any solution, really, to paying a living wage.”
It’s clear that H&M wants garment workers to be paid a living wage, but they’ve been stymied in their efforts so far. By factory owners who violently crack down on and fire protestors, by recalcitrant and corrupt governments, by other fast fashion brands who negotiate prices down hard in the same factories, by the huge population of Bangladesh which leads to literally millions of unemployed Bangladeshis taking any job offered even if it’s paying an illegally low wage, by investors who want to maximize returns, and by people who comparison shop on price online, and want their $7 Kardashian-inspired bandage dress by tomorrow. Maybe they’ve been stymied by you, a conscious consumer who says she will pay more for ethical clothes, but would never shop at H&M because they are part of the problem.
“You know why there are so many garment factories in our country, it’s because they are not paying us enough. We have so many unemployed people, we don’t have opportunities,” a garment worker and student at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh told me in December of last year.
We can’t just wave a wand, or send a tweet, and grant everyone a living wage. Power in this situation is spread out across all the players (except the garment workers themselves.) It will take sustained slog by everyone involved for many years to resolve this issue. Minimum wages need to be raised within the manufacturing countries, workers need to be empowered to participate in collective bargaining, and corruption that contributes to wage theft needs to be rooted out.
But you’re not an NGO worker, so all this can sound exhausting and, frankly, disempowering. So what can you do to take a stand for a living wage? Well, nobody recommends you boycott fashion brands, since they do provide employment and crucial income to millions of women in developing countries. We just want these women to earn more. Here are some concrete steps you can take to fight for that better world:
- Donate to the Asian University for Women. One thing that prevents many garment workers in Bangladesh from getting paid what they’re legally entitled to is their lack of access to education. Traditional, low-quality schools teach a subservient mindset, so that even when a minimum wage increase is implemented, female garment workers are unsure of when or how or how much they should see in their paycheck, and how to fight for it if they don’t receive it. The new Pathways for Promise program at the Asian University for Women teaches English and critical thinking skills to promising young women from marginalized groups, including garment workers, to prepare them for matriculation into the liberal arts undergraduate program. The hope is that the garment workers will graduate prepared to take on a higher-paid management role in the garment factory, and so can advocate for female garment workers and shield them from sexual harassment and verbal abuse from male managers. It’s supported by large donors such as IKEA and Levi Strauss, but you can also donate and support a marginalized Asian woman’s education.
- Register your concern about these issues with your representatives. The UK Parliament has taken notice of the issues of fast fashion in the past few months, and is starting to recommend legislation. So far, they are only focused on the environmental effects of fast fashion, but you can encourage them to broaden their scope to include labor exploitation. Europeans, you should register your concern with the EU. And Americans, well, tell your favorite Democrat presidential candidates that you’re concerned about the global fashion industry. (And also that living wages should absolutely be paid at home in the U.S. as well. Let’s set an example for the world.)
- Ask fast fashion brands to explain and justify their negotiation tactics. All fast fashion brands – Zara, Walmart, Forever21, Boohoo, Target, Kmart, Missguided, Fashion Nova, and the rest – should be pressured to stop using tactics to that drive down wages, not just H&M. Negotiations should be approached on equal footing, long-term relationships with suppliers should be developed, lead times for orders should be reasonable, and the social responsibility team should be integrated into all operations, including the buying and designing teams, and empowered to make and enforce decisions.
- Donate or subscribe to a watchdog organization or media outlet covering these issues. The best way to force change is to expose malfeasance. For example, after the February Oxfam report I talked about came out, several retailers strengthened their commitment to achieving a living wage for garment workers. These investigations and reports need your support. Subscribe to your national newspaper that covers these issues, or donate to The Guardian, Pro Publica, Oxfam, Clean Clothes Campaign, or another organization that is holding the fashion industry to account.
I know this all can seem overwhelming and exhausting. But know there are a lot of people out there who are tirelessly working to improve the lives of women internationally. Know that every bit of concrete support you can give them does help.