Sweatshopping: Feeling the 'squeeze'

Cheap clothes, fast fashions and sweatshops

Companies are not taking real responsibility for the conditions in their supply chains. Ethical codes of conduct are passed onto suppliers— but then its business as normal.

This approach fails to recognise the enormous impact that the retailers themselves have on conditions in their supply chains. Currently, many of their practices undermine, rather than promote, workers’ rights. Industry trends have a direct impact on the conditions for workers, and undermine the ability of suppliers to abide by ethical codes of conduct.

What do retailers ask for?

Ethical codes of conduct

Retailers ask suppliers to pay workers higher wages, limit working hours and overtime, and implement better health and safety standards

Shorter lead times and unpredictable orders

There used to be only a couple of fashion ‘seasons’ a year, when new lines of stock would arrive in the shops, but now stores may change stock once a month. Now it may take only a few weeks for an item to move from the design stage to the shop floor (this period of time is called the ‘lead time’).

This constant churning out of new trends can be exhausting for the fashion conscious — but its impact on those who cut and sew the garments is rather more serious.

Fast fashion means retailers are looking for the suppliers who can meet their demands in the shortest time. Suppliers receive sudden orders with a quick turnaround and inflexible deadlines. Smaller orders mean production costs increase.

Between 2001 -2005 the number of garments bought in the UK increased by more than one third.

Lower prices

As fashion gets faster, clothes are getting cheaper. Prices are falling across the high street — and this means pressure on suppliers to drop prices. Dropping prices means cutting costs - and labour is often the easiest cost to cut.

The average price for womenswear has fallen by a third in the last decade.


The impact on workers

Workers aren’t paid a living wage

In September 2007, a Guardian investigation in India found workers receiving only £1.13 for a nine hour day, half the recommended living wage — and not enough to cover basic needs. Despite working up to 18 hours overtime, workers sometimes needed to rely on government food parcels. The factories were making clothes for UK high street retailers, including Primark, Gap and Marks & Spencer - all members of the ETI.

Increased overtime — especially as deadlines approach

Workers are often forced to work extraordinarily long hours. Oxfam spoke to Phan, a 22-year-old machinist in a Thai garment factory. “We work from 8.00am till noon, then have our lunch break. After lunch we work from 1.00-5.00pm. We do overtime every day from 5.30pm. During the peak season, we work until 2.00-3.00am. Although exhausted, we have no choice. We cannot refuse overtime: our basic wage is too low. If we want to rest, our employer forces us to keep working.”

Increased use of temporary labour and subcontractors

One strategy to cope with unpredictable orders is to hire workers on temporary contracts or sub-contract to other suppliers — this means labour can be switched on and off to cope with sudden orders with a quick turnaround. Many workers may not ever receive contracts, despite working for many months or years in the same factory. Sub-contracted workers and home-workers, located even further from the public eye, face even more precarious existences, earning lower wages, with less job security.

Exploitation of cheap migrant labour

In Guangdong Province in China four out of five garment workers are young women under 25. Many are migrants, who have left rural areas in search of better employment in the garment industry.Yet these young women, far from home, are not all ‘living the dream’. As migrants their rights are tied to their workplace — for example, if they lose their job, they lose their right to stay in that area. Some may be in debt for the cost of their work visas. Relatively powerless, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Ah Yun is a typical 19 year old migrant workers who sews in a garment factory in Guangzhou city. She receives a monthly wage of 360Rmb a month, though the legal minimum is 684Rmb. In the three months she had worked in the factory she worked overtime an average of 25 days per month.

Workers are bullied to ensure they meet targets

Workers are under constant pressure to increase productivity and meet targets. Parvin told the Guardian “A sewing machine operator hadn’t met her target of finishing 100 pieces. It was maybe 80 or 90. The supervisor came over and snatched up the clothes and slapped her and shouted at her. What can she say? If she protested, she would be sacked.”

Trade unions are suppressed or discouraged —many employers and governments worry that an organised workforce will be less cooperative.

Less than 10% of garment workers are unionised, and rights to organise are frequently met with either indifference or active suppression.

In China, the only legal trade union is under the control of the government, so is incapable of being an effective advocate for workers’ rights. Many workers are unaware of their rights, and those who do risk their jobs to organise independently also risk violent repression and imprisonment.

Even where trade unions are legal, they face repression. Workers supplying Primark, Asda and Tesco in Bangladesh told the Guardian in July 2007 that they had been refused access to a trade union and four of their colleagues had been dismissed for attempting to set one up.

Evidence of poor conditions is hidden when inspectors visit the factory

For example, some factories use ‘double book-keeping’ to deceive inspectors about overtime— workers receive one payslip detailing their legal hours on it; their overtime is included on another slip. If the factory is inspected, the inspectors see only the first slip. Oxfam’s report contains some examples.


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Sources and further reading