Ninety-five per cent of fashion companies aren’t paying the workers in their supply chains a living wage, according to the latest instalment of Baptist World Aid’s annual Ethical Fashion Report.

Living wages lie at the core of fixing the fashion industry. Workers who receive a living wage can quit a job where they are mistreated or without fear of falling into poverty and can assert their rights without fear of harm to themselves or their family. But those who don’t are at risk of becoming trapped in exploitation or modern slavery.

So why do wages get so little attention?

Fashion companies are taking advantage of the unethical systems ingrained in vulnerable communities through decades of exploitation.

2021 marks the end of the first round of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, with a significant number of businesses now required to disclose their work addressing forced and child labour in their supply chains. Despite this new impetus, the Ethical Fashion Report found that efforts to empower garment workers, and particularly the payment of living wages, continue to reflect the industry’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for garment workers’ wages.

Fashion companies have failed to see their responsibility for raising workers’ wages for some time. They believe that as the factory employs the workers, the factory can determine the price they charge companies.

While it makes sense, it is wrong. Fashion is in a ‘race to the bottom’. If suppliers charge higher prices—resulting in a living wage for workers—companies will simply find a cheaper supplier. The reason you can buy a shirt for the same price as a chocolate bar is that costs are being cut along the supply chain. Usually, it’s the garment workers who are forced to work unpaid overtime or accept below-minimum wages to meet the demands of the companies whose clothes they sew.

Garment workers have the least power of all in fashion supply chains.

When you’re making poverty-level wages on a temporary or zero-hour contract in an area with a high level of poverty, you know you’re replaceable. You know too, that your power to negotiate is severely limited.

This standard is so ingrained that a garment worker counts themselves as fortunate if they can work six 12-hour days in a row and earn a wage sufficient to support themselves. The systemic reliance on overtime, skipping breaks, and sacrificing leave to cobble together a half-way sufficient wage has resulted in an industry where wage improvement programs struggle to get off the ground simply because good hours and reasonable pay are inconceivable luxuries for workers who’ve experienced exploitation for generations. The fear or falling into poverty, and not being able to support their family or community, is a huge obstacle to progress.

Intentions are good, but action is slow

Despite the number of companies with a public commitment to pay a living wage to workers doubling in the last two years, Baptist World Aid found that action is still slow.

But the conversation is changing. Companies are increasingly being told by organisations like Baptist World Aid, governments, and importantly, consumers, that they are not devoid of responsibility for garment worker wellbeing.

Companies can no longer hide behind the pretence of living wages threatening their businesses, as fears that paying living wages will raise the price of clothing have largely been debunked. Less than one per cent of the price of a piece of clothing typically goes towards wages. Researchers from the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales found that closing the living wage gap for cotton and textile workers in India would only require an increase of around 20 cents per item.

Nor can companies plead ignorance or lack of resources. Issues that don’t require direct engagement with or participation of garment workers—such as developing labour standards policies, tracing their supply chains, and using more sustainable fibres—have seen huge progress over the last decade. Conversely, those reliant on direct engagement with garment workers or support of unions and collective bargaining have seen far less action, despite these practices offering greater opportunity for raising wages. There are many programs and organisations to assist companies committed to taking meaningful action to increase wages in their supply chains. But we will not see meaningful progress until companies recognise that the solution to this issue must be reached in partnership with the garment workers they claim to care about.

There’s no doubt, the fashion industry has a long road ahead of it when it comes to paying living wages to garment workers. To ensure that any efforts to raise garment worker wages are effective, the whole fashion industry needs to get on board. And right now, too many are still dodging responsibility. We as consumers can play our part by only purchasing clothes that have been ethically produced and convince clothing companies that the race to the bottom must become a race to the top. Clothing companies must strive to transform the fashion industry into one that is sustainable and fair. That’s a race where we all win.