A Reflection on International Worker’s Day

3 ways that sustainable brands can advocate for ethical labour practices

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, which claimed the lives of over 1100 garment factory workers. Little did anyone know at the time, but the factory’s collapse would become a benchmark for a worldwide movement that called for employers in the fashion industry to improve working conditions and pay better wages. Since that pivotal day in history, much has changed, and much has stayed the same. With the arrival of International Workers’ Day on 01 May, we have an ideal opportunity to once again reflect on how far we’ve come as an industry and the immediate challenges which lie ahead. 

Facing the harsh truths

Most recently, a Chinese producer of what we now call ‘fast fashion’ came under fire for their unethical labour practices. A scathing documentary shed light on the abhorrent working conditions that many workers are subjected to for less than minimum wage. Reports that followed outlined the fact that humans, whose names we will never know, shoulder the true cost of fast fashion. This was found to be the case not only in fashion but in industries such as homeware production, household goods, consumer appliances and hospitality.

Up until fairly recently, the term ‘unethical labour practices’ was not elaborated upon – the world had little to no understanding of how these practices have materialised for workers on the ground. But now we know. 

In factories that churn out millions of products a day, workers are subjected to working 18 hour days. Considering that International Workers’ Day commemorates the global struggle of advocates for the 8-hour workday, factory workers being made to work for 18 hours straight represents a giant leap backwards. Further undercover investigations by journalists revealed that in these modern-day sweatshops, workers often resort to sleeping under their work stations and washing their hair during their lunch breaks to keep up the pace. 

Furthermore, workers in these factories have reported being forced to pay penalties or take pay-cuts when mistakes are made. Unfortunately, this only represents the tip of the iceberg. Workers in sweatshops often endure verbal; and sometimes physical abuse at the hands of draconian supervisors. Many of these factories have no ventilation and are fertile grounds for the spread of disease and conditions such as fatigue. Needless to say, safety precautions are not adhered to, and workers are made to inhale toxic substances and expose their skin to harmful chemicals. 

According to a report published by earth.org, the average wage of garment factory workers in Bangladesh is 33 cents per hour, while in India, the average wage barely touches 58 cents per hour. 

It’s important that consumers have a clear picture of what ‘unethical’ labour practices mean. Without clear descriptions of what’s happening at a grassroots level, we will never be able to grasp the magnitude of the problem. 

Power in the hands of everyday people

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. Unethical labour practices in industries like fashion are nothing new. The unfair treatment of workers and the fact that thousands of workers are paid below minimum wage is a reality that has persisted for almost three decades – arguably longer if you consider that buying large quantities of household goods at cheaper prices has been perpetuated since the 1960s. 

The harsh reality however, is that the plight of these workers has only recently been brought to light. Most recently, the onset of the pandemic brought issues relating to employee wellbeing to light in a way; and to an extent, that has been unprecedented. Thanks to rapid technological innovation, smartphone cameras have provided insight into the world of industrial production that was previously unimaginable. Today, armed with a smartphone, everyone can be a journalist. And in examples like the events of the Arab Spring; a historical shift that was widely published on social media, we see that there is indeed hope on the horizon. 

Heinous acts that were committed behind closed doors for generations and actual evidence of what life is like for factory workers, can be documented and shared with the world. And that’s exactly what’s happening with the proliferation of media reports, investigations and documentaries that are helping to spread awareness and to shed light on these dark places. 

What will be exposed over the next few years is going to shock the world, simply because consumers have yet to have the avenues by which to empower themselves. It will undoubtedly seem to get worse before it gets better, because the world is being introduced to atrocities that have been allowed to persist for far too long. Ultimately, this is good news. Building more transparent industries relies on the availability of first-hand information. And technology has given us the tools to make that happen. 

The question many of us are asking is, ‘what does the way forward look like?’ And, ‘when we advocate for worker’s rights, what exactly are we asking for?’ A big part of the answer lies in the hands and minds of the world’s new generation of entrepreneurs. Brands like those you’ll find on Plain Tiger will be the ones to set the standard of what is acceptable and what the workers of the future can, and should be able to look forward to. We believe strongly that sustainable brands will become the industry’s biggest changemakers. 

Homing in on the sustainable luxury sub-sector, these are 3 of the practical ways in which emerging brands can help set the benchmark for ethical labour:

1. Scrutinise supply chains

Fashion brands are heavily reliant on supply chains. Evidence of this has been seen most recently in the large-scale supply chain disruption caused by the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Therefore, a big part of the solution to more ethical production lies in procurement. 

Suppliers who exploit their workers, subject them to harsh working conditions and who fail to compensate them fairly exist simply because brands and businesses continue to support them. This has been done in the name of cutting costs. And while profitability will always be at the centre of why people do business, profit should never be put ahead of people. As a conscious brand, the choices you make in terms of where you source your raw materials from plays a pivotal role in maintaining or challenging the status quo. 

Thankfully, thanks to rapid advancements being made in the world of blockchain technology, materials will become more traceable and supply chains will become more transparent. For now, brands have a duty to ask the right questions and to interrogate the information suppliers give them. If more brands apply stringent ‘non-negotiables’ to their procurement process, we will succeed in building a healthier ecosystem that will shift from being an exception to being the norm. 
2. Prioritise transparency and accountability

Countries like the UK have set the standard for fairer labour practices by making it mandatory for companies over a certain size to report the rates they are paying their workers. A similar practice needs to be adopted by smaller businesses and fashion brands on a global scale. Ideally, the long-term solution is a regulatory industry body that governs worldwide processes and procedures. 

But right now, brands can lead the way by becoming more transparent around what their workers are being paid. How labourers are being treated and what they’re being paid is now every consumer’s business. And it should be. Brands are realising more and more that they are accountable to the people who support them. And the more consumers push for more transparency, the more brands will be compelled to comply with a new, better standard for labour. It’s also incumbent on brands to hold each other accountable - to speak out when unethical practices are being implemented and to openly demonstrate their commitment to being more people-centric.
3. Actively promote policy reform

Brands have the ability to become powerful advocates for change. By publishing marketing material that calls for other brands to follow their example and apply ethical practices, brands can begin to rally together and form communities around issues relating to sustainability. 

When there is an opportunity to attend a trade show, speak at an event or attend a conference that is aligned with labour-related issues, sustainable brands need to have a presence. By investing in robust public relations strategies and by using founders as mouthpieces for activism, brands can help accelerate the pace of change. 

Going forward, as governments become more aware of these issues, future-fit brands will play an important role in determining the direction of policy reform. The actions we take today will have a direct and long-lasting impact on the state of the labour market of the future, not only for the fashion industry but for production across the board. 

New horizons ahead

By taking measures such as these, brands can help usher in a new era for industry. And with more and more consumers holding brands and businesses to account for their decisions, the revolution towards humane labour practices is gaining momentum. There is no doubt about the fact that the wheels of change are turning – this Worker’s Day, let us hold onto this, celebrate the progress being made and continue to be discerning about our choices as brand founders and consumers. 

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