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A guide to clothing brands and the way their garment workers are treated


Milosz Maslanka | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 09/24/19

When the people who make your clothes can barely feed their kids, what can American shoppers do to help?

It’s a good thing for parents like Sandra Romero that clothing prices have remained pretty stable. She and her husband have to buy new clothes at the beginning of every school year for their daughter, who is regularly outgrowing last year’s threads.

While food prices in the United States have gone up 50% since 1991, the cost of clothing has changed little.

And it’s no wonder, as most clothing manufacturing has gone overseas, where labor costs are far lower.

But while that’s a benefit for Americans, reports that have made their way out of factories in China, India, Indonesia and other countries strongly suggest that far too many garment workers are paid wages they can barely live on, must put in excessive work hours in unsafe working conditions, and often endure verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

“In 1993, more than half of all garments sold here were made in the United States, and in 2013 that number was 2.6%,” said David Cloutier, who teaches Catholic social ethics at the Catholic University of America. He added that in 1991, the average American spent $1,735 on clothing. In 2012, that figure inched up to $1,736.

Wages for workers in overseas factories have also inched up, according to reports. And progress to ensure living wages for such workers also seems to have merely inched along. In many cases, the wages have been insufficient to ensure that a worker’s family is well-fed and decently housed. A large majority of garment workers are women, and in some cases, the need for better pay has combined in tragic ways with factory managers’ unscrupulous demands for sexual favors.

“We’re in touch with the trade unions here in [Lesotho] because we’ve also tried to do a fair amount of HIV education and life skills training with young women in the factories,” said Erica Dahl-Bredine, Catholic Relief Services’ country representative of Lesotho and Mozambique. “And they all tell us that sexual harassment is very widespread in the factories, that women more often than not are encouraged, if not seemingly forced, to have sexual relations or provide sexual favors to supervisors to get overtime, which many of them need because the pay just isn’t enough to get by on, to be promoted, even to actually get a chance at a job, when there are always more women looking for work than there are jobs. That’s a very serious concern that’s really not being addressed in the country in any meaningful way.”

Working conditions are also a problem, and in some cases have led to death. A 2012 factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan, claimed some 300 lives. Many of the exits were locked or blocked. A building collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 workers in 2013 did not come as a complete surprise, as some workers had complained that the structure was unstable—but their voices were ignored.

Romero said she has read articles about garment workers’ poor working conditions and low wages. But she said she hasn’t had an opportunity to find out which brands might be doing something about it.

Indeed, the global garment industry is very complex, and it is sometimes difficult even for brands to monitor the clothing factories with which they contract. Some brands have made efforts to ensure better pay and working conditions at the factories, however, thanks in part to pressure from advocacy groups.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of labor unions and non-governmental organizations based in Amsterdam, earlier this year asked 20 clothing brands to provide evidence that they are ensuring a living wage for workers in overseas factories. The results were disappointing.

“No brand can report that the workers who make their clothes earn a living wage, outside those in their own headquarter countries,” the CCC contends.

Only Gucci got anything other than a failing grade: it was determined that 25% of the Italian fashion company’s workers earn a living wage.

Four of the 20 companies featured in the CCC’s Tailored Wages report responded to Aleteia’s request for comment or further explanation. Here is a brief summary:

Adidas. The German sporting goods company says it strives to “ensure that prices they pay to suppliers cover legally mandated minimum wages and benefits.” But the CCC points out that there is a difference between minimum wage and a living wage and says it found no evidence of work to bridge the gap between the two.

Stefan Pursche, a spokesman, told Aleteia that the Adidas workplace standards “require our suppliers to progressively raise employee living standards through improved wage systems, benefits, welfare programs and other services. In addition, we are active in numerous organizations and initiatives that support these efforts.”

Pursche said the company conducts hundreds of annual factory audits.

Amazon. The online purveyor of just about everything also has a clothing line, but according to the CCC, it has no policy on living wage and makes no mention of wages being enough to cover workers’ basic needs in their supplier code.

C&A. The company, based in Belgium, says that 36% of workers are covered by some form of collective bargaining agreement, “which is their way of measuring a living wage,” CCC says, skeptically.

Decathlon. The French company has a compliance program that monitors minimum wage or collectively bargained wage payment. But CCC said it “did not report any work that was significantly increasing workers’ wages and had no clear plan for how living wages could be paid.”

Fast Retailing. This Japanese company is working with Fair Labor Association’s Fair Compensation Program “to identify any gap towards living wage.” But the CCC says there is no evidence of any work to boost wages for workers.

Fruit of the Loom. The company, based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, did not respond to CCC’s survey but says on its website that it too is working with the FLA’s Fair Compensation Program. From what the CCC can gather, FotL’s responsibility “seems to be passed on to suppliers only.”

GAP. The San Francisco-based company did not respond to CCC and “has no clear program to address wages,” the group charges. GAP says it requires suppliers to “pay at least the legal minimum or industry wage, whichever is higher.”

G-Star. The Dutch company has been “doing some mapping of wages in their supply chain to understand the gaps and are developing a strategy.”

CCC: “More action is needed. … No brand seems to have made much progress with voluntary measures.”

Gucci. The Italian company is the only one to offer CCC any kind of evidence, saying that 95% of their manufacturers are based in Italy, and they pay a wage value negotiated in a national collective bargaining agreement in all suppliers. But this wage only covers a living wage in a limited number of cases, CCC says.

H&M. The Swedish company made news in 2013 when it promised to deliver a “fair living wage” to more than 850,000 workers in its 750 factories by the end of 2018. Has it delivered? CCC sees no evidence that it has.

Ulrika Isaksson, an H&M spokeswoman, told Aleteia that certain steps must be taken first to create the foundations necessary for systemic change. They include “empowering garment workers and making fair negotiations possible.”

“We are working together with 21 other brands and the global union IndustriALL, which represents garment workers, towards this goal.” IndustriALL represents people in more than 140 countries, working across the supply chains in mining, energy and manufacturing sectors at the global level.

Hugo Boss. The German company has wording about wages being enough to cover workers’ basic needs in their code of conduct, says CCC, “but that is where the action ends.”

Inditex. The world’s largest apparel company, which produces brands such as Zara, says that 3,532 factories are paying a living wage. That would be 70% of its factories. But the corporation gave no benchmark to measure this by and did not clarify the methodology behind the figure, according to CCC.

Levi Strauss & Co. The iconic jeans brand did not respond to CCC’s survey. Levi’s is “one of three companies in this study who have not even included wording about wages being enough to meet workers’ basic needs in their policies,” the organization commented.

Nike. The sports brand’s work promoting methods to improve wages with suppliers is not using any benchmarks to measure a living wage, according to the CCC. “Passing all the responsibility on to suppliers to improve pay systems won’t work, when global brands control the economics of supply chains.”

Nike spokesman Matthew Kneller told Aleteia, “Nike’s Code of Conduct requires our suppliers to pay their employees at least the local minimum wage or prevailing wage (whichever is higher).”

Primark. The Irish company has joined the ACT initiative (Action Collaboration Transformation) and is engaging with a group of brands looking to establish national level collective bargaining in some supplier countries, says CCC. Primark is “unable to show that any of the workers making their clothes are being paid a living wage,” the organization says.

Puma. This German company says that all its suppliers are “contractually bound to pay a fair wage as defined in our Code of Conduct.” But the CCC says there is no evidence they have any clear strategy for making this a reality.

PVH. The American company that brings us Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, IZOD, ARROW, and Speedo says it follows the FLA’s Fair Compensation Work Plan and is working towards fair compensation.

But CCC doubts that ACT has the potential to bridge the gap between wages paid and living wage levels.

Tchibo. “Our central approach is the ACT Initiative on Living Wages,” Tchibo says. “It aims at industry-wide compulsory wage levels to be set through consecutive collective bargaining between local/national trade unions and employer associations.”

CCC says it got a similar response from Tchibo when they did the first Tailored Wages study in 2013. “They were unable then, and they are unable now, to report any progress on living wages being paid to workers in their supply chain.”

Sandra Coy, a spokeswoman for the Hamburg, Germany-based company, told Aleteia that the criticism that the wages paid are not living wages “is correct.”

“And it is true that international coordination must be accelerated,” Coy said. “This is a systemic, widespread problem (as pointed out in the report as well), and it calls for a systemic solution.”

Under Armour. The American company says it is collaborating with the FLA to advance the organization’s Fair Compensation Strategy. CCC says Under Armour should “consider negotiating and signing enforceable and legally-binding agreements with worker representatives that deliver a living wage, and commit brands to pay significantly higher prices to cover the cost of living for workers’ families.”

Zalando. The Berlin-based company that produces Pier One and other brands says it has signed the Memorandum of Understanding of IndustriALL Global Union and ACT. “With this collaboration we are extending our efforts on fair working conditions for Zalando employees and the people working in our supply chain.”

“Despite signing up to the ACT initiative via its brand zLabels, Zalando makes no mention in its supplier code that wages must be enough to meet workers’ basic needs,” CCC says.

There are alternatives to the big-name brands. Two of them are Catholic Relief Services and Goods of Conscience.

CRS, the overseas relief agency of the Catholic Church in the United States, has an Ethical Trade Program that vets companies against several criteria.

“The criteria includes paying a fair wage to workers and a fair price to suppliers in the local context, promoting environmental stewardship throughout its operations, supporting the communities where products are sourced,” said Simone Blanchard, Manager for CRS’ Mission and Mobilization. “Companies must also have a third party certification or system to verify that their operations are ethical. We also look for companies that are in line with Catholic Social Teaching. Unfortunately there are several companies who treat workers and the environment fairly but they support abortion, access to birth control, euthanasia or other social issues that are in opposition to Church teaching. Part of our vetting process includes a thorough on-line search as well as meetings with the CEO or Marketing Director.”

CRS’s ethical shopping guide also includes coffee, chocolate and jewelry.

Goods of Conscience, a nonprofit company founded by Catholic priest Andrew O’Connor, uses organic cotton from Guatemala in clothing lines designed by Fr. O’Connor himself.

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