We hear a lot about ‘fair wages’ and ‘living wages’. So what do those terms mean, and how much are workers really paid to make clothes?
By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
We all want our clothes to be made by people who earn a ‘fair wage’. But what does that even mean, exactly?
To find out, we could use the dictionary definition: “a wage that is reasonable for the type of work done.” But that’s still pretty vague. A better version comes from The Global Living Wage Coalition (GLWC), an NGO that merges Fairtrade International, GoodWeave International, the Rainforest Alliance, and Social Accountability International (SAI).
All of those organisations work in partnership with the ISEAL Alliance and international living wage experts Dr. Richard and Martha Anker to oversee improvements in workers’ wages in the farms, factories, and supply chains.
The GLWC definition states that a living wage is:
“The remuneration received for a standard workweek by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family. Elements of a decent standard of living include food, water, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing, and other essential needs including provision for unexpected events.”
It’s definitely one measurement we can use when determining how much workers are really paid to make clothes, the goal of this article. But there are still some things to keep in mind. For example, when we asked Melanie DiSalvo of clothing maker Virtue + Vice what a ‘fair wage’ meant to her, her answer was:
“I feel like the topic of living and fair wages is a loaded question. For rural Indian villagers who live on land that is owned by their families so they don’t have to pay rent and eat rice and dal for three meals a day. Yes, a dollar a day is more than enough to “live” there. I spent a day in Delhi once eating as cheaply as I could. I spent 60 US cents on food, eating out, and $3 for a bed in a shared dorm in a hostel. Nothing I did was fancy, and yes I was able to get by.
But would me doing my job for $5.00 a day be fair? Absolutely not. My time is worth much more based on the 10 years of experience I have. Would $1.30 a day be fair for an unskilled worker, who could be replaced easily, who doesn’t have to pay rent because their home was passed down from previous generations and could eat for even cheaper than I did because they grow their own food and cook at home? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s definitely liveable, though.”
What can we conclude from all this?
When asking questions like: how much are workers really paid to make clothes? And are those wages liveable? Are they fair? The answers can be complex. Here, I have done a bit of research to discover what the average wages and working conditions are like for garment workers in seven different countries, so you can make your own decisions about whether or not the clothes you buy on the high street were probably ethically made or not.
How Much Are Workers Really Paid To Make Clothes?
Bangladesh is one of the global capitals for garment production. Here, 3.5 million workers in 4,825 garment factories produce goods for export to the global market — principally for Europe and North America. Some of the lowest wages in the garment industry can be found here, where the minimum wage is around 3,000 taka – approximately $30 a month.
While a dollar a day can go pretty far in Bangladesh, this is actually well below the country’s minimum wage, which is 5,000 taka, about $45 a month – still barely enough to provide a family with shelter, food and education in rural areas. The Global Living Wage Coalition says that a basic but decent living wage in urban centres in this country is 20,542 taka – or around $242 a month – much more than the minimum wage.
Besides this poor compensation, working conditions can range from OK to horrific. Many Bangladeshi factory workers are forced to work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week, with some workers finishing at 3am only to start again the same morning at 7.30am. Conditions can be so hazardous that they often lead to work injuries and factory fires. In fact, the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 killed at least 1,132 people and injured more than 2,500 – mainly because the workers were locked into the building. Only five months earlier, at least 112 workers had lost their lives in another tragic accident, trapped inside the burning Tazreen Fashions factory on the outskirts of Dhaka.
Moreover, sexual harassment and discrimination is widespread, and many women workers have reported that the right to maternity leave is not upheld by employers. Workers cannot complain, as factory management often fights tooth and nail to prevent the formation of trade unions, a right protected under the Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining ILO Conventions, which Bangladesh ratified in 1972. And finally, child labour is also not uncommon in this country – but sometimes, the alternative is worse: many young girls are sold into prostitution at a very young age, making factory work a preferred choice.
The president of the National Garment Workers Federation, Amirul Haque Amin, said: “The owners, the government and the buyers should consider that workers’ health and quality of life affect the production process and the products that come out of it. Large volume and quality production cannot be expected when workers are hungry, in poor health and unable to meet basic needs.” This statement resonates even more when we acknowledge that the Bangladeshi garment industry generates 80% of the country’s total export revenue. meaning a very large number of people are suffering in these clothing factories.
The takeaway: Bangladesh still has some of the worst reported wages and working conditions in the world, and still employs plenty of children to do so. But the alternative for them may be worse.
Over the past quarter of a century the garment industry in Turkey has been growing slowly and steadily, with the textile, garment and leather sectors leading the country’s economy. About 508,000 people are registered to be employed in this field, whilst 1.5 million are estimated to be working informally in this industry.
The textile and apparel Turkish industry was able to increase its exports from $777 million in 1980 to $9.9 billion in 1999, thanks to the availability of raw materials, especially cotton, relatively low labour costs, and the customs union agreement with the European Union — making Turkey the third largest clothing supplier to the EU with exports worth $12 billion per year.
Through the decades this business has grown to the extent that one of the regions in Southeastern Turkey where garments are produced is being advertised with the slogan “Cheaper than China”. But that being said, the Turkish commission recently decided to increase the minimum wage by 26% from TL 1,603 ($278) year-on-year, bringing it up to a total of TL 2,558 ($482).
That’s not too bad if you live in rural Turkey, but the Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations, representing employers and clients, which include behemoths like Zara and H&M, considered this proposal excessive and not in line with the government’s inflation and unemployment goals.
Another major issue Turkey faces is that of child labour. Many refugee children, such as those fleeing America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, get swept into a mechanism of exploitation — even though Turkey has officially banned children under 15 from working. These desperate kids between the ages of 7 and 10 are reported to earn 400TL per month ($135), well below the Turkish minimum wage.
The takeaway: Whilst wages can generally be reasonable, it seems like child labour from war-torn countries may be creating a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of wage rates and ethics.
Did you know that some of the world’s best-known brands, such as H&M and Gap, employ tens of thousands of Ethiopian workers in a sector the government predicts will one day generate billions of dollars? This is the result of an economic experiment in this East African country that invited the global garment industry to set up shops in Ethiopia’s burgeoning industrial parks.
Needless to say, this comes at human cost: a report made by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights provides a close look at the flagship Hawassa Industrial Park, about 140 miles south of the capital of Addis Ababa, which employs 25,000 workers. This report — authored by the Center’s Deputy Director Paul Barrett and Research Director Dorothée Baumann-Pauly — notes that, “The government’s eagerness to attract foreign investment led it to promote the lowest base wage in any garment-producing country — now set at the equivalent of $26 a month.”
This amount is definitely not empowering the community. As the report clearly points out, most young Ethiopian workers are hardly able to get by to the end of the month whilst living on their own, and are in no position to support family members on such a low wage. Given that the average cost of living in Ethiopia is set around $166.15, this country has a long way to go when it comes to paying its garment workers a fair wage.
The takeaway: This African nation is encouraging foreign direct investment in its garment industry by offering labour at basically slave wages
Although China has done a remarkable job of lifting people out of poverty this century, more than 482 million people in China – 36% of the population – still live on less than $2 a day. This is especially shocking when you consider the fact that even those in the most basic jobs, such as waiters and – make around $980 a month in China’s biggest cities.
The unskilled workforce of this country relies on internal migrants, who struggle with overtime, serious health risks from toxic dyes and chemicals, and the denial of social security rights. In 2018 there was an estimate of 288 million rural migrant workers in China, making up more than one third of the entire working population.
Once again, women are the most penalised, and they represent 70% of the workers in the garment industry. The paradox is that for most of these women, this oppressing form of employment may represent a form of emancipation, as Chinese-American author Leslie T. Chang depicted in her novel ‘Factory Girls.’ The book fictionalises the actual enfranchisement of women in contemporary China, who have migrated from their rural villages in search of a better life in the coastal factory cities.
But it’s also important to note that in China, women in the garment industry often earn significantly less than men, and are expected to be more docile and productive, whilst grappling with systematic discrimination and harassment on a daily basis.
The good news is that recently, China has increased minimum monthly wages by 80 yuan ($11) to 2,200 yuan ($311) a month. But this is for workers who are actually employed – often in this country, prisoners are forced to work for nothing.
An American formerly imprisoned in China told the Financial Times that prisons in China are: “…a business, doing manufacturing jobs for companies. Mornings, afternoons and often during the after-lunch nap, prisoners ‘labored’ in the common room. Our men made packaging parts. I recognized well-known brands, including [but not limited to] C&A and H&M. So much for corporate social responsibility.” Although, he does offer one caveat: “The companies may well have been unaware that prison labor was part of their supply chain.”
Unfortunately, it’s important to note that China is not the only country to use prison labour to make garments and other goods: it is used in the United States, the country with the most imprisoned people on the planet, even more. And what’s worse, American prisons serve as profit-making entities, thus incentivising law enforcers to imprison more and more people. Just a few big brands that are made by prison labor in the US include Victoria’s Secret, JCPenney, and Macy’s.
But is this always a bad thing? As Melanie DiSalvo recounts:
“I met a girl in India who used prison labour to make her clothes. She claimed she was empowering the women by teaching them skills. I got to digging. It turned out she was paying them cents to sew the garments that she sold for hundreds of US dollars. When I confronted her and asked her how that was ethical, to pay people so little. She responded with this: the women’s lives were taken care of by the prison. They had food. They had shelter. They had medical care. What did they need money for? Their “living wage” was technically zero. Touche!”
We’re not sure we’d agree with the point of view of this Indian clothing producer, but as with any wage issues, prison labour can be complicated. Our position is that for-profit prisons are pure evil, as they have financial motivation to keep those prisons packed, but state prison labour is a bit different; it can actually help inmates learn skills. It’s up to you to decide what’s ethical, ultimately.
The takeaway: Chinese wages can be good in cities, but are very low in rural areas. Women suffer the most in this massive workforce, and unpaid prison labour is frequently used to manufacture goods, including clothing
According to entrepreneurs Jerry Li and Amit Sharma “The elephant may grow slower than the dragon, but that does not mean that it is unsatisfactory.” In other words, in terms of economic growth, China is still stronger, but India is also thriving.
This can be undoubtedly attributed to one of the oldest industries in its economy, which dates back many centuries: textile manufacturing. India’s exports during 2017-18 stood at $39.2 billion and this is expected to increase to $82 billion by 2021. India’s garment industry is among the world’s biggest for manufacturing and export, employing 12.9 million people in formal factory settings, and millions more indirectly in informal, home-based settings.
The future for the retail sector is growing rapidly, and several international players like Marks & Spencer, Guess and Next produce clothing via Indian factories. So, does this imply an improvement in labour for factory workers?
Well, probably not, if you’re female. Research by the University of California, Berkeley found that women and girls from the most marginalised communities toiled for as little as 15 cents an hour in homes across India. All workers were found to be receiving less than the government stipulated minimum wages: males earned an average eight-hour equivalent wage of $1.71 per workday ($0.21 per hour) and females earned an average eight-hour equivalent wage of $1.13 per workday ($0.14 per hour).
Furthermore, roughly one in five home-based garment workers in India are aged 17 and under. Author Siddartha Cara brought to light that the labour situation in India is complicated by various factors, including caste-based discrimination, extreme poverty, sexism and economic factors.
As exploited female workers themselves expressed in the UCB study: “I do not enjoy this work. I do it because I have no alternative. There is no other work to do in this village….We cannot leave this work, even though we are treated so badly.”
The takeaway: As with Bangladesh, the situation is highly complex and a bit confusing. There are many brands, such as People Tree and virtue + vice that offer fair and livable wages to garment workers, but it’s safe to say that most clothing factory workers live in misery.
Vietnam is considered the next Asian Tiger, thanks to a new trade deal with the EU to export clothing to Europe. Today, Vietnam is one of the world’s largest garment manufacturers and supplies fashion chains such as Zara and H&M, with over 6,000 garment factories that employ about 3 million people.
But many of these work more than 50 hours of overtime a month without rest days, and still struggle to make ends meet.
An Oxfam study looked at Vietnamese garment workers’ wages and living conditions, unveiling how 99% of Vietnamese garment workers that were studied earn below Asia’s living wage rate proposed by the Asian Floor Wage, and 74% of them earn below the global living wage proposed by the Global Living Wage Coalition.
But there is good news here, too:
NGO FairWear recently launched a Workplace Education Programme (WEP) in Vietnam, which conducts factory training sessions in factories across the country. These sessions are focused on raising awareness of workers’ rights and strengthening communication between workers and management. They also have a local audit team in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and a complaints handler based in Hanoi.
This help is much needed, because although Vietnam is very compliant in terms of not using child, prison, or forced labour, it doesn’t provide much help in terms of worker’s unions. With a boost from the likes of FairWear and other NGOs, and with the EU keeping a close eye on its new trading partner, it seems Vietnam is one of the most ethical places to produce clothing in the developing world.
The takeaway: While no place has a perfect labour record, as we can see, there’s plenty of hope for this country in terms of producing ethically made clothing.
Cambodia is part of the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade programme, which allows the world’s least-developed countries to export most goods to the EU free of duties. As a result, it exports a lot of clothing to Europe, and the minimum wage for Cambodian garment workers has more than doubled in recent years: in 2013 it was $80 per month and now it is $170.
But working conditions are not great, to say the least, and fifty garment workers in Phnom Penh have documented the harrowing plight they endure making clothes in a series of self-shot films. Furthermore, just a year ago, garment workers here urged H&M to deliver living wage after the Fair Living Wage Summit.
Another aspect that was brought in the forefront during the Business of Women at Work Forum this year is how the mistreatment of workers actually impairs production. Garment workers in Cambodia are 90% women, who constantly have to defy threats, violence, social oppression and sexual harassment. This kind of abuse urges them to call in sick or resign, reducing productivity. As a consequence, factories have to hire more staff, causing an indirect cost to the garment industry of up to $89 million per year.
The good news is that in September 2019, Cambodia raised the legal minimum wage for workers in 2020 in its textiles and footwear industry to US$190 (5,800 baht) per month, an increase of 4.4%. And why did they do so? It was thanks to pressure from the European Union over its human rights and political record.
The takeaway: Consumer and political pressure has worked to improve life for labourers in this nation.
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