Mahmuda Akther and her husband were inside the factory when it collapsed. They had both come to Dhaka seeking a better life. Although wages in the factory were low, the alternative, trying to eke out an existence in their home village, was even worse. Mahmuda had only just started back at the factory working alongside her husband the week before the building collapse. She’d spent the 40 days prior at home, looking after their newborn baby daughter. Mahmuda was one of the fortunate ones, she survived. Tragically, her husband did not.

Stories like Mahmuda’s managed to pierce the conscience of consumers, retailers, investors and governments in an unprecedented way. All around the world, consumers became concerned about who was making their clothes and how these workers were being treated. These were questions we’ve been asking at Baptist World Aid Australia for a long time now. Four months after the Rana Plaza collapse, Baptist World Aid released the Australian Fashion Report, grading companies based on the systems and practices they had in place to protect workers from exploitation, forced labour and child labour. The report was broadly acclaimed and received widespread coverage, both nationally and internationally.

We’re excited to be launching our follow up to this report with updated and expanded research that has added more than 90 new brands! It was encouraging to see that as a result of lobbying and media generated by the report, two-thirds of companies previously assessed have worked to improve their labour rights management systems, and almost double the number of companies now have practices in place to ensure workers receive a living wage! These are wonderful results.

The research, however, has also uncovered some areas of serious concern. 91% of companies still don’t know where all their cotton comes from, and 75% didn’t know the source of all their fabrics and inputs. If companies don’t know how and where their products are made, then there’s no way for them to ensure that their workers are protected.

Being paid a decent wage is the most significant concern amongst workers. Yet only 12% of companies had taken any action to make sure their ‘international’ workers were receiving a living wage (that is a wage sufficient to cover basic necessities and a small amount of discretionary spending). And even then, these companies were taking this action for just part of their supply chain.

Sadly, many of the worst overall performers were iconic Australian Fashion brands we love and trust such as the Just Group (owner of Just Jeans, Peter Alexander and Portmans), fast retail brands like Ally, Valley Girl, Temt and Industrie and low cost suppliers like Lowes and Best & Less. These companies all received D- or F grades! 

We could find little evidence that any of these fashion retailers were doing much, if anything, to protect workers overseas. Many of them had little or no publically available information and/or didn’t respond to any of our requests to engage with this important research.

Without adequate systems and policies in place, it’s impossible for any retailer to know that workers like Mahmuda have decent, safe working conditions or if they’re receiving sufficient wages to lift them out of poverty.

Worst still, without adequate systems in place, companies risk having the products they sell made by forced labour and child labour. For example, if a company hasn’t looked into where their cotton comes from, there’s a reasonable risk that cotton from the fields of Uzbekistan is making its way into their clothes.

In Uzbekististan, the dictatorial Government of Islam Karimov has become infamous for shutting down schools each year and forcing up to a million children and adults to labour for months at a time in dreadful conditions picking the cotton which props up the state owned cotton industry.

On a positive note, it was encouraging to see the increased effort that many companies had engaged in to improve their labour rights systems. K-Mart released a complete list of its direct suppliers, a huge step towards transparency; Cotton-On took big steps forward to identify suppliers deeper in their supply chain; and H&M, Zara, Country Road and the Susan Group all demonstrated that they had made efforts towards paying better wages for workers overseas.

The Fairtrade companies once again were a stand out, with all the brands receiving A grades. Cotton On took honours being the highest rated, non-Fairtrade Australian retailer. Well done, Cotton On! Amongst the international brands, Hanesbrands, H&M, Zara, Fruit of the Loom and Patagonia were the best in their field.

Mahmuda dreaded the idea of going back to factory work after losing her husband in the factory collapse. However, despite the terrible trauma she’s gone through, her extended family couldn’t earn enough to care for her and her baby. So she had no choice but to return to work1. She wants desperately to provide a better life for her daughter than the one she’s had.

In the past two years, there’s been some big steps forward for factory workers in Bangladesh. 1,800 of the 4,500 garment factories in the country are now signatories to the binding Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord. The minimum wage  as also been increased by 75%. However at $68 US a month, wages in Bangladesh still remain one of the lowest anywhere in the world and far below the suggested living wage of US$104 a month.

The total production cost of a T-shirt in Bangladesh has been estimated to be just 50c . In order to pay a living wage which would completely transform the lives of factory workers such as Mahmuda, it would cost a mere 30c extra per shirt… an amount so small it should break our hearts.

With the release of the update Ethical Fashion Guide, we are hoping and praying that consumers, investors, government and retailers across Australia and around the world are spurred on to do more for people working in the garment industry – to provide them with decent jobs that pay a living wage, to protect them from slavery and child labour and to ensure they remain safe in their places of work.

Please, will you join us in using the Guide when you shop to support companies that have labour rights management systems in place and that pay a living wage? And please pray that the report would continue to generate industry interest leading to real and lasting change for affected garment workers living in poverty in Bangladesh and around the world.

 

1 Mahmuda’s story was reported by the Guardian Newspaper UK, The Shirt on your Back interactive documentary.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2014/apr/bangladesh-shirt-on-your-back
2 Estimates taken from NPR’s Planet Money T-Shirt Project.