Worker wellbeing in the fashion industry: At the crux of the matter

Reflections on the issues – and the issues behind the issues

By Renee Fortune

Social justice issues around the working conditions and treatment of clothing factory workers around the world have been bubbling under the surface for decades. For many, however, it was a problem that existed in the developing world – far away from glamorous fashion shoots and extravagant window displays of the world’s biggest fashion retailers. Sadly, it became a matter of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

Then 2013 arrived, and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which took over a thousand garment factory workers' lives, captured the world's attention. Movements like Fashion Revolution, which prompted consumers to ask, “who made my clothes?” ensured that the well-being of factory workers remained in the spotlight. 

Years later, several non-profit organisations, activist movements and corporate bodies have taken up the mantle, and glimpses of change can be seen on the horizon. But the exploitation that has been perpetuated by the fast fashion industry will take years to unravel – partially because the issues around worker wellbeing are complex and nuanced, and partially because the more we discover, the more we realise we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. The problem is that the Titanic earth that sustains us all is heading faster towards that iceberg and we simply cannot afford the repercussions of a collision. 

Shedding Light on Some Unspoken Truths

Rebecca Prentice, Anthropology Lecturer at the University of Sussex has claimed that in some of the poorest countries – Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – workers are subjected to 10 -12 hour working days and intense work rhythms. Health threats arise from dust inhalation and lack of ventilation, harassment and bullying, and ailments stem from exposure to bright lights, faulty electrical connections and harsh chemical adhesives. For the majority of these workers, there is a choice to be made between earning a living and caring for their health. And in countries where conditions are the most dire, workers are faced with the choice of whether to keep a roof over their heads or whether to feed their family. It’s a deeply saddening reality, but someone’s got to talk about it – more people need to talk about it, everyone’s got to talk about it. 

The unfortunate reality is that in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, many brands did make fundamental changes – to their health and safety policies. Defining worker well being narrowly as the absence of injury, structural improvements were made to buildings, stricter accident policies were implemented and insurance companies raked in the benefits of the expanding risk landscape. But, as we know, worker wellbeing is about so much more than physical safety. It’s about mental and emotional health. It’s about compensating people for their skill; not based on industry standards but on the real worth of their talent and the contribution they make to the sustenance of the industry. It touches on issues around the equal distribution of wealth. Frankly, it’s about treating people like people.

The Question of Living Wage 

Talking about factory worker wellbeing in a general way is not as useful as honing in on how exploitation materialises on the ground. Recent studies have helped paint a clearer picture. A report by the Worker Rights Consortium found that factory employees who managed to maintain their jobs through the pandemic years, reported a 21% decrease in income, with remuneration falling below what is known as a ‘living wage.’ The Clean Clothes Campaign has been particularly relentless in its search for the truth of whether the change that is being publicised is actually taking place.

In a study that surveyed 108 brands and retailers from 14 countries, workers of some of the world’s most ubiquitous fashion brands were asked questions about their working conditions, their contracts, and remuneration. Sadly, not a single one of those 108 brands paid a living wage to all the workers in their supply chain, despite having pledged to do so. This is the reality almost a decade after the Rana Plaza disaster. And the reality is that the living wage issue is only one component of a much bigger issue.

Whose Responsibility is It?

What many members of the public are not aware of, is the complexity of the living wage issue and some of the underlying reasons for why fast fashion brands are dragging their feet when it comes to implementing real, meaningful change. A paper written by student, Raisul Islam Rifat provides a broader perspective on the issue. 

To understand the complexities involved, we need to look at the nature of legislation around production processes and the statutory responsibilities of brands. We often think of the fashion value chain as including a supplier factory and a brand, but the network is far broader. The global fashion value chain includes the entire life cycle of the garment from design, to manufacture, to sale and disposal. 

Consider a simple example like the buttons on a blouse. Before the button itself can be sewn on in a factory, it needs to be produced in a plastic factory through a process of injection moulding after which chemical dyes are added for colour and chemical catalysts are used to harden the plastic. Before being processed as output, the button will go through a stringent polishing and coating process, followed by quality checks and stress tests. To make a button; a single component of a blouse, requires not one supplier but suppliers of suppliers. In terms of the legal processes that govern many of the fashion brands in the world, brands are not responsible for the processes of their suppliers – and the suppliers of their suppliers. 

So while many brands can claim to pay their workers a living wage, that is where their consideration begins and ends, because the legalities that regulate the industry have made it legally impossible for brands to be held legally accountable for injustices committed by their suppliers or any subsidiary along the value chain. If they were, the legal repercussions of what’s happening behind the scenes would be brought to their doorsteps to the tune of millions of dollars.

Reflections on What This Means for Us All

So when we interrogate the living wage issue, we’re not only talking about its ethical and moral dimensions – what we need to consider is fundamental legal reform. We’re talking about the decisions of the world’s leaders and the underlying corruption that prevents many of them from steering the legal system in a more just direction. Suddenly, Greta Thunberg’s question: “how dare you?” seems that much more poignant.

To do something, to truly make a difference, we need the private and the public sector to join forces in advocating for social justice and to protect the vulnerable communities around the world whose hands are never shaken and whose faces we never see. We need the top names in fashion to learn from emerging brands who are pushing the sustainability agenda and refusing to become a part of the problem. And we need consumers to realise that every purchase is a vote for a better world or a world in which the status quo continues to exploit the many for the benefit of the few. 

The point of this article is really to bring a fraction of the truth to the forefront and to provoke independent and critical thought – to ask readers to think of the ‘issues behind the issues’ and what it’s really going to take to turn the fashion industry around. More importantly, the point is to challenge consumers, individually, in their own capacities to identify ways in which they can drive the impetus that this social justice movement needs. Because thankfully, it has become a movement, and it is truly deserving of that status. 

Be prepared – tackling issues like worker welling in the fashion industry will unlock many doors to further realities that have been hidden in plain sight. It is the catalyst of a continuum that will determine whether our collective tomorrow will be a better one.

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