Fair wages in fashion – still a long way to go

On 20 November I attended an evening panel debate, hosted by Guardian Sustainable Business and H&M, around achieving fair wages in the fashion industry. The event brought together fashion brands, sustainability experts, NGOs and journalists “to explore the issues and complexities of setting a fair wage in production countries that supply the fashion industry.”

The debate was also supposed to “highlight arguments for and against benchmarking and setting minimum wages” – something that H&M could have been questioned and challenged on, particularly that it faced some criticism from the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) this year – read on to see the details. H&Ms head of sustainability Helena Helmersson wasn’t challenged at all, neither by other panellists nor the audience (but anyone who attended will agree that the Q&As session was rushed) which has left some of us a bit disappointed.

So what did we hear?

  • The pressure to achieve fair wages in the fashion industry isn’t coming from H&M (although the company is „trying to raise the bar across the whole industry”) but from the workers themselves. The workers are driving the change and it is very important to get the unions involved in the proces.
  • „Collective barganing (negotiations between employers and a group of employees aimed at reaching agreements to regulate working conditions) is the only way forward to ensure fair wages” – Ilona Kelly, campaign director, Labour Behind the Label. And she went on to say that minimum wage and collective bargaining are the only ways to fight poverty in the fashion industry.
  • Criteria to set a minimum wage need to be transparent, known and shared.
  • It is also important to link wage to efficiency. Once a living wage has been established, we should think of top ups linked to the efficiency of the work.
  • Industry-whole approach is needed to tackle this problem. Brands can empower workers to increase their wages by making sure there is a social dialogue between workers and employers. Brands also have a vital role to play in influencing governments.
  • Consumers have an important role to play too – consumers can make a difference through „acting in a conscious way”. Brands need to make it easier for consumers to compare brands and products to help them to act in the consious way
  • The most effective way to get involved is to campaign and hold the big brands to account. Jenny Holdcroft, policy director, IndustriALL Global Union encourage everyone to “watch closely at what brands are doing and question them on what they are doing and why”

What didn’t we hear?

I spoke to a numer of attendees after the debate and we agreed that we didn’t learn anything new – hearing that „brands should do more” wasn’t news to anyone. We didn’t hear anything on the issues raised in the „Tailored Wages” report by the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), a collective of trade unions, charities and consumer organizations who work to support workers’ rights (the report wasn’t mentioned by any of the panelists).

The “Tailored Wages” report was the result of a brand survey of 50 leading global clothing brands, including H&M, to “try to get hold of the facts about who is doing what to ensure a living wage is paid to workers making our clothes.” Overall, CCC were “disappointed that progress is really still only at the trial stage, and work that is actually putting wages up is still rare. There are very few retailers who have tried to truly ingrain throughout their business work towards a living wage.”

H&M „unconvincing so far”

The report examined H&M’s work on wages which includes commitments to improving pricing methods to ensure the true cost of labour by 2014, and reduction of average overtime by 35%. The CCC placed H&M in a “Some effort: Mention of work on living wages, but unconvincing so far” category, which isn’t as good as ”On the way: Work started to increase wages, but not enough yet”.

According to Niki Janssen, coordinator at CCC: “Despite the fact that H&M is putting in some effort for living wages, its not very convincing so far.” One issue H&M’s plan fails to address is a clearly stating a living-wage benchmark. “Although there are many good elements to what H&M has developed, without such a definition it is impossible to create a ‘road map’ to achieving the payment of such a wage or measure the road map’s success,” found the CCC report.

Janssen also points out that a lot of H&M’s strategy is aimed at encouraging negotiations for fair wages at factory level. Helen Helmersson confirmed this during the debate by saying that „it is the workers who needs to decide what the living wage should be, not us here in Europe.” However, the CCC „agree that wages need to be negotiated, but believe that factory based negotiations will never led to workers earning ‘fair living wages’.” (example from Bangladesh) “A commitment must come from H&M to raise the wage significantly via a benchmark. Such a commitment may open the space in negotiations for trade unions to make wage demands that represent the real needs of workers.”

Get involved, H&M

H&M has made a direct response to the report, saying that the view that foreign companies should determine a living wage is outdated, and it is the textile workers own perception of what a fair living wage is that serves as our definition of a living wage.

It is disappointing for the CCC to see that H&M seems to have adopted the view that it is neither a part of these negotiations nor has a role in ensuring these result in achieving a living wage. “With the Bangladesh government unwilling to raise the legal minimum wage in the near future, an extreme power imbalance prevails between workers and employers. Without H&M clearly defining what they consider to be an acceptable living wage in Bangladesh, workers will never have the leverage to negotiate a wage that will allow a life of dignity.

By endorsing a living wage figure H&M will not be interfering with the demands of unions in negotiations. In fact, publicly endorsing a specific living wage figure has the potential to make H&M’s work for fair living wages more efficient in the short term.”

As I mentioned earlier, there was very litte time for the questions from the audience when these issues could have been raised. Hopefully there will be another opportunity to ask Helena Helmersson some more challenging questions. As Jenny Holdcroft encouraged, I will be watching closely.

About martas2912

I am a sustainable tourism specialist on the Caucasus region. I have been going back and forth to Georgia since 2001 as a traveller, tourism development professional and academic researcher. Now working as a Sustainable Tourism Expert for the World Bank and GIZ projects in Georgia on DMOs, regional and national marketing, and mountain tourism development. More on my blog: oneplanetblog.com and tweet @oneplanetblog
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