Well-known Australian fashion companies are keeping their overseas supply chains cloaked in secrecy, with the likes of Wish, Oxford and Roger David refusing to detail their efforts to stamp out exploitation and sweatshop conditions.
Ahead of the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1120 Bangladeshi garment workers, Baptist World Aid (BWA) has graded 106 companies A to F based on how transparent they are about their supply chains.
Bangladesh garment workers exploited in global fashion industry
According to the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, garment workers face poor working conditions, but “when workers know their law and rights, they’re eager to organise unions and form unions”. Courtesy of Human Rights Watch.
Topping the list are Australian Fairtrade-certified companies Etiko, Mighty Good Undies and RREPP. They are closely followed by global names such as Patagonia, Inditex (Zara), and Reebok.
Overall, half of those surveyed were able to boost their grade, with adventure brand Macpac, luxury label Oroton, and fast fashion chain Cotton On making the biggest jumps.
But nine companies refused to answer questions and were accordingly slapped with an F, including fashion brands Oxford, Wish, Decjuba, Roger David and Betts.
“If they don’t share this information, there’s no way that consumers can know they’re doing enough to ensure that workers aren’t being exploited,” said BWA’s advocacy manager Gershon Nimbalker.
“We sent emails, wrote letters to the company, CEO and chair of the board, made follow up phone calls multiple times and gave them long lead times of three to six months.”
Oxford, Wish, Decjuba, Roger David and Betts did not respond to Fairfax Media’s request for comment.
Salaheya Khatun, a Bangladeshi garment worker, is paid half the living wage of $220 a month. Photo: Baptist World Aid
The “Ethical Fashion Report” shows that in the past year the proportion of companies publishing their final stage suppliers’ business names and addresses has grown from 16 per cent to 26 per cent.
The report shows that more companies are diving deeper into their supply chains to identify who farms the raw material and spins the fibres but only 7 per cent know where all of their cotton is coming from.
Relatives of a Bangladeshi garment worker killed in the Rana Plaza factory collapse mourn as they collect his body. Photo: Kevin Frayer
Some of the world’s biggest cotton producers, including India and Uzbekistan, continue to be plagued by slavery and child labour issues.
It also shows the proportion of companies that could demonstrate improved wages for workers has grown from 11 per cent in 2013 to 42 per cent this year.
High-end accessories brand Oroton has increased its ethical fashion grade from D to B in the past year. Photo: Supplied
“Paying workers a living wage is achievable even for high volume, low cost operators, and it could transform the lives of millions while driving economic growth in their communities,” Mr Nimbalker said.
Low wages continue to be one of the fashion industry’s biggest problems, with companies flocking to countries such as Bangladesh to take advantage of cheap labour.
Salaheya Khatun, 25, is one of Bangladesh’s 5 million garment workers. She sews T-shirts all day at a factory in the heart of the country’s capital, Dhaka.
She is only paid $113 a month, which is slightly higher than the minimum wage but far below the living wage which would cover her basic needs. She sends nearly half to her parents who are raising her daughter.
“I am in debt by around 1000 Taka [$16] every month because I need to pay for groceries and supplies on credit,” she said. “I just want to be able to support my family.”
Carolyn Katto from Stop the Traffik, a coalition of 30 groups fighting to end human trafficking, said while the report showed big progress at the cut-make-trim stage of production, there was still “huge abuse” further down the supply chain.
She said in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which produces most of the world’s cotton knit fabrics, more than 300,000 young women were trapped in the Sumangali labour scheme.
“I met one woman who said to me, ‘I am just like a machine trying to survive amongst machines’,” Ms Katto said. “She regularly worked double shifts but didn’t get paid for it. They would lock the doors.”
She said one mill owner told her that demand for quicker turnaround times and cheaper prices meant they couldn’t pay their workers properly.
“There are children in Uzbekistan and widows in India that are part of this supply chain, and we’re on the other end, so what we choose to do will determine the living conditions for these people,” she said.
Mr Nimbalker said he hoped the federal government would adopt the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, which requires businesses to take decisive steps to eradicate slave labour.
“What we want to see is a robust piece of legislation that has the right mandatory disclosures and penalties to make it meaningful to address the problems of slavery,” he said.
“We want consumers to vote with their wallets and call on companies to lift their game.”
The 2017 Ethical Fashion Report can be seen here.