‘Garment Worker Diaries’ highlights the plight of factory workers

When we slip into our favourite pair of branded jeans, we hardly ever think about its origin or the impact it must have had on the life of the person who made them. Overconsumption is encouraging more and more brands to bring cheaper collections to the market at an accelerated pace. This, in turn, means garment workers, who are typically female, are faced with longer working hours, low pay, verbal abuse and unsafe working conditions. “Much of the fashion industry is opaque, exploitative and environmentally damaging, and desperately needs a revolutionary change,” argues Fashion Revolution, which has teamed up with Microfinance Opportunities (MFO) and the C&A Foundation to carry out the research project ‘Garment Worker Diaries.'

The year-long research project, which saw researchers visiting 180 female workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India respectively, found that workers in Bangladesh put in 60 hours a week, earning an hourly rate of 28 taka (0.95 dollars) on average. This means that they earn less than the minimum hourly wage 64 percent of the time. The project also found significant evidence that suggested the more they worked the less they earned. Outside of work, men controlled earnings which were spent on basics like food and rent, but rarely used it to improve a household’s quality of life.

Report highlights minimum wage disparity and workers’ struggles

Popular high street brands source their products from factories based in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and Cambodia among others. While there have been protests and movements demanding supply chain transparency from these brands, workers who make apparel continue to lead a life full of struggles. For instance, the Bangladeshi women were found to earn the least per hour—about half of what the women in India and Cambodia earn. In the other countries, there was similarly opaque data when it came to base wage rates and overtime pay.

While workers in Bangladesh earn less, workers in Cambodia seek overtime hours to boost their incomes, but in many cases are not paid a legal wage for these hours, according to the report. On average, Cambodian workers work 48 hours a week and earn an hourly rate of 3,500 riels (2.53 dollars). However, despite earning the minimum wage and supplementing their income with overtime hours, most workers face financial strain and at certain times find it difficult to get access to quality food and medical care.

On the other hand, workers in India’s export-oriented factory employees in the southwest of Bangalore usually earn the legal minimum wage or higher and have access to pension and state insurance programmes. On average, they work 46 hours a week and earn an hourly rate of 39.68 rupees (2.27 dollars). But female workers are often exposed to verbal abuse from their supervisors and rely on income from their husbands or other household earners to meet their financial obligations.

‘Garment Worker Diaries’ highlights the plight of factory workers

Time to raise our voices and extend support

Despite several studies pointing out the everyday struggles that garment workers face in these countries and organizations striving for better workers’ lives, in reality, much work is still needed to be done. The MFO, Fashion Revolution and C&A Foundation state that while findings of projects like ‘The Garment Workers Diaries’ are effective tools for workers, factories, brands, governments to make needed changes and leverage positive movements in target countries as many of them continue to source clothing from factories employing workers who struggle to make ends meet, it should also serve as an opportunity for key global stakeholders to work collaboratively and bring about systemic change in the garment industry.

Positive steps are being taken by companies like Primark, towards becoming more transparent in their supply chain. Earlier this month, after 70,000 consumers signed a petition calling on leading fashion brands including Armani, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and Walmart, to publicly share information on their suppliers, Primark published a list of all the suppliers' it sources its clothes from. Through its #GoTransparent campaign, a coalition consisting of Human Rights Watch, Clean Clothes Campaign and the International Labor Rights Forum have been calling for greater transparency from these brands.

In order to raise consumer awareness, a link has been included in the project template which lets consumers call on brands to share the number of workers in their supply chain that are covered by collective bargaining agreements.

Picture credit:Worker Diaries website