For many, the recent arrival of megabrands Topshop and Zara in Perth were long overdue. It isn’t difficult to see why international chain stores of this nature are insanely popular. In addition to the celebrity endorsements and the frequency with which each on-trend collection is released, the main appeal lies in the affordability. While shopping at these stores seems to be a win-win situation for the buyer (cool clothes for cheap prices!), the ugly truth is that with each purchase, we are endorsing and continuing the exploitation of overseas workers. The majority of these clothes are manufactured in Asia, where unsafe working conditions, insufficient wages and derelict living conditions are all issues faced by more than 15 million garment workers.
The current working environment of many garment factories is downright dangerous. It was only in April of last year that Rana Plaza, a Bangladesh building that contained five garment factories, collapsed. Rana Plaza manufactured clothing for global brands such as Benetton, Mango, Primark and Walmart. The collapse killed 1,138 workers and injured another 2000. Cramped, unsafe factories aren’t the only issue – workers are often faced with gruelling workdays and are forced to work ten to twelve hours, increasing to even eighteen as deadlines approach. This often involves working in close contact with harmful chemicals and machines. For example, sandblasting – a process that gives denim a ‘worn out’ look – can result in the lung disease silicosis. Furthermore, employees are often not even allowed to use the toilet or have access to clean drinking water.
Many employees depend on overtime pay to help their meagre wages, but in many factories, overtime pay is withheld by managers who set unrealistic daily targets. Add to this the fact that most workers are already paid less than the minimum wage, and it is not surprising to learn that their living conditions are as woeful as their working ones. For example, in Cambodia, more than 500,000 people are employed by the garment industry, and yet the minimum wage is just US$100. Thus, for many of these workers, food and adequate shelter are luxuries. When Steffi Eckelmann, a German photographer, interviewed a group of Cambodian garment workers, she learned that it was common for three to six women to share one room that was less than eight square metres. There was no ventilation or furniture; the women slept on the floor on plastic sheets.
This where the Clean Clothes Campaign steps in. The revolutionary campaign cites its mission as “improving working conditions and supporting the empowerment of workers in the global garment and sportswear industries”, and since its founding in 1989, its network has been expanding worldwide. Currently, the Clean Clothes Campaign consists of trade unions and NGOs distributed across 17 European countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
The Clean Clothes Campaign is founded upon a number of beliefs. Their first principle states that:
All workers – regardless of sex, age, country of origin, legal status, employment status or location, or any other basis – have a right to good and safe working conditions, where they can exercise their fundamental rights to associate freely and bargain collectively, and earn a living wage, which allows them to live in dignity.
Other founding principles include the right for workers to know of their rights and their entitlement to education and training; the right for the public to know how and where their garments are produced; the right for workers to lead their own organising and empowerment; and the need for garment companies and retailers to adopt a standard of labour practice as outlined by the Clean Clothes Campaign. The comprehensive list of the campaign’s beliefs is accessible on their website.
The aforementioned principles are a given in first-world countries, so it’s easy for us to forget that a significant portion of the world is nowhere near as fortunate. The Clean Clothes Campaign heavily relies on support from the public in order to execute its mission of improving the working conditions in the global garment industries. By logging onto their website, you can make a donation, sign their petitions and learn more about the cause. The campaign’s latest petition endeavours to increase the minimum wage of Cambodian garment workers from US $100 to $177, an essential step in the fight for a living wage.
Help fight the exploitation of garment workers by logging onto www.cleanclothes.org. All images from Clean Clothes Campaign.