From factory to high street: the hidden cost of cut-price clothes

May 2008

Poor working conditions have always been a part of the fashion industry. The owners of the first British textile factories in the 18th and 19th century paid low wages, employed children, forced workers to do overtime and allowed hazardous working conditions.

As costs spiralled over the years, factories moved to low-wage, developing countries. In the 1970s it was Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea and today it’s Bangladesh and Indonesia among others.

Making clothes is complex

Making clothes is a complex task and it’s proved difficult to develop machinery to do it. Today you still need an army of people to machine stitch clothes and produce finished garments in a factory. One person sews the sleeves, another the collar and someone else the pockets.

Low pay and unsafe working conditions have not gone away, the problems have simply shifted to developing countries.

Paying workers low wages means a factory owner can make clothes more cheaply, so they’re more likely to win a big contract to supply high street chains.

Some sewing workshops use children as a source of cheap labour, although this practice is decreasing, according to the Ethical Trading Initiative, an organisation that works to improve conditions for workers.

11p an hour

In the developing world, a seven-day working week is common when the pressure’s on to finish an order. And hourly wages in the clothing industry range from 11p an hour in Pakistan, to 43p in China and £5.58 in the USA. Typically, the worker who made the garment will receive as little as 0.5% of the average price the garment sells for.

Trade unions are one way of helping workers achieve fair rates of pay and working conditions but unions are often officially or unofficially banned by factory owners.

The more progressive UK fashion companies are starting to look seriously at what they can do to improve conditions for the workers who are making their clothes.

Buttons from China

High street names such as Monsoon, Marks and Spencer and Next are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, www.ethicaltrade.org. Members agree to a code of practice that covers basic workers' rights. It looks at hours worked, wages, health and safety and child labour. Members work with the factories they use to achieve improvements each year.

But one of the challenges that fashion companies cite is monitoring working conditions across a complex supply chain – raw cotton from India may be woven in Bangladesh, while buttons and zips may come from China. It can be difficult to ensure working conditions are fair in factories thousands of miles away.

Check the chain

Another challenge is that factories can sometimes sub-contract to other companies without the knowledge or approval of the retailer. So a UK high street store may check its main supplier, but not the next level down in the chain. So unfair working practices and low wages continue and every so often, a high street name hits the headlines.

The Ethical Trading Initiative encourages members to look at the whole chain and to reach out to particularly vulnerable workers, such as homeworkers. Embroidered clothes and accessories are often made by people who work at home doing 'piece work' – they get paid for each item instead of an hourly wage. Because they work at home they are less visible and often suffer poorer living and working conditions.

Campaigning organisations such as Labour Behind the Label want high street stores to go further. For example, instead of paying a minimum wage, Labour Behind the Label wants high street chains to make sure their suppliers pay a living wage – a wage that enables workers to feed, house and educate their families.

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