In Bangladesh, thousands of garment workers are on strike, saying the minimum wage they receive barely keeps them above starvation level. Are New Zealand clothing retailers joining international calls for better pay?
If you buy the clothing you wear, someone else has touched it before it ever sits on your skin. Someone else has lined raw edges of fabric against each other so seams sit straight. Someone else has cut out pattern pieces in different sizes. Someone else has fed elastic through a waistband, added buttons to a shirt. This is hard, skilled, fiddly work. And the chances are good that the person doing this work wasn’t paid very well.
“As consumers buy clothes, it’s really hard to picture the conditions under which they’re made; our association is with the brand rather than all the different hands along the chain that made what we’re purchasing,” says Maya Duckworth, advocacy coordinator at international justice organisation Tearfund, which releases an annual ethical fashion report. “The way we consume, with clothes becoming cheaper and cheaper, has a role in a system that results in low wages for garment workers around the world.”
When Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013, killing more than a thousand Bangladeshi garment workers, it was one of the worst industrial disasters ever, and led to global coverage. A decade later, many people have a vague awareness that much of the clothing retailing in New Zealand is produced in uncertain conditions overseas – a reality that the current strikes in Bangladesh, one of the world’s biggest clothing exporters, have brought to the fore. Clothing makes up 84% of Bangladesh’s exports, and the fashion industry is one of the biggest employers. While people in Aotearoa wear clothes their hands have stitched, many Bangladeshi garment workers are currently on strike, demanding higher wages.
Once every five years, the Bangladeshi government revises the minimum wage. The current minimum wage, set in 2018, is 8,000 taka, or $121 a month. The proposed 2023 revision is to 12,000 taka, or $181; less than half of what unions say a living wage would be. “We know that a lot of workers in Bangladesh can’t afford clean water, safe housing and good food on the pay they’re currently receiving,” Duckworth says.
There has been a severe crackdown on workers who are striking, including reports that four workers have been killed in clashes with the police. Factory owners and workers are saying that for the minimum wage to increase, the international brands that buy from Bangladesh will need to commit to paying more for their clothing. “I despise every moment at the factory because of the harsh conditions and harassment, but with rising inflation the wage I earn is insufficient. Many times, I’ve had to sneak into fields on my way home from work to hunt for vegetables to feed my children. Starvation is next,” worker Rojina Akter told The Guardian.
Clothing retailers in New Zealand are part of this system, too. In September, Kmart and H&M, two low-cost retailers operating in New Zealand, were among signatories to a joint letter supporting an increase to living wages in the readymade garment sector in Bangladesh. Strengthening collective bargaining processes and industrial relations was part of the letter’s request for all parts of a supply chain to progress towards living wages. The letter also referred to legislation in the US and EU to increase due diligence and reduce exploitation in supply chains.
In July, New Zealand announced a similar law would be drafted. Just before the announcement, National health and safety spokesperson Paul Goldsmith told The Spinoff that he was supportive of legislation to limit worker exploitation overseas, and incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon has condemned modern day slavery, so it’s likely the new government will keep this legislation in some form.
In response to The Spinoff’s request for comment, an H&M spokesperson said, “We believe the workers need to have fair compensation so that they can have a better living standard. However, we also believe that the minimum wage revision should happen more frequently and following the development of the local economy.” The brand has received criticism for its “fast fashion” principles, and has made an effort to improve how it is perceived. It has a significant amount of information available about its labour practices; it pays over the current minimum wage at its 237 contracted factories in Bangladesh. Only 20% of these factories, which employ more than 500,000 workers, have trade unions.
But without looking individually at labels, it’s much harder to tell where many New Zealand brands manufacture their clothing; an analysis by Oxfam showed that Aotearoa-based companies are lagging behind international transparency standards. Pushes for better practice, including from the likes of Tearfund’s Ethical Fashion report, mean that some companies, including Ruby and Kathmandu, publicly name their suppliers. A number of Kathmandu suppliers are based in Bangladesh, but the company did not respond to The Spinoff’s request for comment on the strikes – even though it’s a certified B Corporation, happy to promote its environmental and social credentials.
The Spinoff reached out to a number of major garment retailers, including H&M, Farmers, Huffer, Postie, The Warehouse, Glassons, Country Road, Decjuba and Cotton On, to ask whether they manufactured any of the items they sold in Bangladesh, and if they did, whether they supported the garment workers’ strikes. Only H&M, Postie and The Warehouse responded in time. The Warehouse provided only a link to its recently released ethical sourcing report, which said that 5.8% of its items are made in Bangladesh; the report describes what issues auditors have found in factories, and how these have been addressed. In Bangladesh, for instance, problems of factories not providing the legally required one day off a week and overtime were “corrected”, said the report.
“All workers at our factories are paid within the local government’s framework – at legal standards or industry benchmark standards, whichever are higher,” said Linda Leonard, managing director at Postie, in a statement, adding that workers should have the choice to strike according to their individual employment agreements. “We work towards making sure all of our product is fairly sourced, therefore the item is set according to this.”
Improving working conditions for garment workers isn’t as straightforward as simply boycotting companies that produce overseas or don’t trace their supply chains. Very few companies make their clothes in New Zealand, and those that do are often small-scale and expensive. This could simply create a race to the bottom, with unscrupulous countries continuing to provide convenient places for international brands to use cheap labour. This has already started to happen: a decade on from the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladeshi government has put in place at least some worker protections. Meanwhile, production in places like Vietnam and Turkey has kept growing to feed the endless maw of clothing consumers in wealthy countries. New entrants like Shein and Temu have only made ultra-cheap clothing more accessible.
“We have millions of people employed in the garment industry around the world, and changes in this system need to happen together,” says Duckworth. For the sake of workers and the environment, we need to buy fewer clothes – but the solutions involve workers and consumers advocating for change; companies committing to improving wages, even if that means prices have to rise; and governments improving regulation.
If knowing that workers in faraway places like Bangladesh are being killed in their pursuit of better pay is upsetting, Duckworth suggests that telling the companies you buy clothes from that you support the rights of workers is one place to start. “Ask what they’re currently doing,” she says. Reading or listening to the voices of the workers currently protesting is also important, she thinks: looking directly at the problem and acknowledging how you are linked to the work and lives of people on the other side of the world requires courage and honesty, but can also spur next steps.
After all, while overseas garment workers are quite literally thousands of kilometres away, your hands and their hands have touched the same objects – a kind of intimacy that can cut through the snarled strands of multinational subcontracting. “Think about the hands of the farmers growing the cotton, the hands weaving the textiles, the hands cutting and sewing your clothes,” Duckworth says. “All those hands along that supply chain are people, too.”