Labour Behind the Label



Making the code part of the contract between the buying company and the supplier is not sufficient. Good implementation requires the integration of a range of positive actions into the company’s management system and business practices including: transparency about where they source from, having people in the company who have responsibility for overseeing the implementation, informing all workers in all production units about the code, in the appropriate language, ensuring their purchasing practices don’t prevent the implementation of the code and proper steps for resolving violations of the code if they are uncovered. It is also important that workers are able to report violations of a code of conduct without fear of disciplinary action.

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A code of conduct here refers to a list of labour standards. Those who sign on to codes pledge to adhere to these standards in their workplaces. Some companies have drafted their own codes, campaign groups, trade unions and NGOs have also drafted model codes which they believe are more comprehensive.

Putting a code of conduct on a website or sending it to consumers is not a guarantee that workers’ rights are being respected.This is not to say that codes cannot be useful. They can be used to hold companies to account for conditions in their supply chain and, if workers know about the codes and what they contain and if their is a system in place for them to anonymously report code violations they could be a tool for organising. But many of the codes used by companies have had little impact in challanging violations of workers’ rights.

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Labour Behind the Label the never calls for a boycott unless this is demanded by workers themselves. The end result of a boycott is likely to be that workers lose their jobs, so it’s only appropriate to boycott a company if all those who would be affected have called for it.   At present, workers have not called for a consumer boycott of a particular company within the fashion industry

In addition, as violations of workers’ rights can be found in almost every factory, workshop or living room in which garments are produced, the differences between high street brands and retailers are not so great as to justify buying your clothes from one high street outlet instead of another.

This applies not only to consumers deciding not to buy from a particular brand or retailer, but also to brands and retailers deciding not to source from a particular supplier.  Ceasing to source from a supplier because of labour rights violations is only a valid course of action when the workers themselves have demanded it; in all other cases there is an established set of actions that brands and retailers, and their suppliers, should take.

Labour Behind the Label, in common with labour rights experts, trade unions and workers’ rights organisations worldwide, asks companies to take action in six areas:

1. Accept their responsibility for working conditions in all the workplaces producing their products.

2. Adopt a code of conduct that, at a minimum, includes workers’ basic rights to earn a living wage, work freely and without discrimination, and defend these rights by joining a trade union.  See our model code for more detailed information about what this code should include.

3. Prove how the code is being implemented in their factories using credible, independent verification.

4. Work with factories to improve conditions where working conditions aren’t up to scratch, rather than pulling out of them.

5. Work with trade unions and labour rights groups on the ground to achieve all this.

6. Make sure that their purchasing practices don’t get in the way of attempts to guarantee workers’ rights.

None of the mainstream fashion and sportswear brands and retailers are meeting all or even most of these demands.

Labour Behind the Label is unable to provide a list of ‘best’ or ‘worst’ brands or retailers simply because the causes of and solutions to poor conditions in the garment industry are not that simple. This is not about one or two ‘bad’ factories supplying a handful of companies that just don’t care. The root causes of bad working conditions are as much, if not more, to do with the way the fashion industry operates than the intentions and desires of any individual company. This means violations of internationally-recognised minimum labour standards can be found in almost every factory, workshop and living room in which garments are produced.

All companies therefore have a responsibility to eliminate these violations from whichever supplier they choose to buy from, to ensure that their relationships with suppliers don’t contribute to poor working conditions and to work together to tackle the root causes of workers rights’ violations throughout the fashion and sportswear industry.

So are all companies as bad as each other? 

Not exactly: Companies do vary in terms of what policies they have and what action they have taken so far. Some companies are more committed than others to address these issues, but none has managed to stamp out all – or even most – of these abuses of labour rights.  All companies could be putting a lot more time and resources in.

Those companies who are making the most progress have acknowledged that there are labour rights violations in their supply chains and begun to work collaboratively with trade unions and labour rights groups to address them, increase the amount of information they disclose publicly (including the names and locations of production sites) and examine how their core business practices impact on working conditions.  All of these things are means to an end; while they are positive signs of progress, the issues that need to be addressed are deep-rooted, and no company can claim to have come near solving them.

This might all seem a bit negative, but in fact there are reasons to be positive. Many companies have made progress towards adopting a more open attitude and showing greater willingness  to improve conditions in their supply chains. Worker and consumer action has been a key factor in driving this change.

Facts and figures

Of course it’s true that the cost of living in many countries is much lower than in Britain – that’s why we don’t compare our wage levels with workers elsewhere. We do know from our partners around the world that the minimum wage in each country is rarely enough to provide a ‘living’ wage for workers and many garment workers don’t even get paid that. A living wage enables workers to meet their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport, as well as allowing for a discretionary income. It should be enough to provide for the basic needs of workers and their families, to allow them to participate fully in society and live with dignity. It should take into account the cost of living, social security benefits and the relative standards of other groups. This is what we believe each worker should be able to earn within a normal working week.

It’s true that, for many workers, getting a job at a garment or sportswear factory is better than some of the alternatives – that is why so many depend on them. The fact that people are desperate isn’t an excuse to exploit them. Workers aren’t getting their fair share of the benefits they are creating for the big companies.

We welcome the fact that millions of people are earning a wage. However, this alone is not enough to lift them from poverty if employers can hire and fire at will, deny union rights, pay low wages that drive people to work inhumane hours just to survive, avoid paying sick leave and avoid observing maternity rights. For many workers, these jobs bring hidden yet more devastating costs, such as poor health, exhaustion and broken families, all of which are unacceptable and avoidable. Everyone wants and is entitled to a quality job that pays “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his [or her] family an existence worthy of human dignity.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23(3)).

Yes. It is the task of governments to provide good working conditions and to enforce them. Legislation often does exist, and many garment-producing nations have good labour rights legislation. The problem is that it isn’t enforced properly.

Under pressure from Western governments and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, developing countries have implemented policies that prioritise the creation of an environment that is attractive to foreign investment. Incentives for foreign investors include not only low wages, but also the suspension of certain workplace and environmental regulations. If a government does attempt to strictly enforce these regulations, it is likely that many investors will quickly pack their bags for another country that is even less strict and is more accommodating. As a result, all these countries compete against one another based on the lure of their bad working conditions – the so called race to the bottom.

It’s wrong to assume that governments have absolutely no control over foreign investments: not all companies pack up and leave at the first signs of government regulations. So it is valuable to encourage governments to pressure companies to take responsibility for their labour policies and ensure their compliance. That said, it’s also true that a government’s power against (large) companies is limited. Bad working conditions are an international problem that will not be solved on a national level alone.

For years the fashion, sportswear and clothing industry have been associated with the idea of sweatshops. For most people the term ‘sweatshop’ brings to mind images of deadly factories, forced labour and child workers: the most extreme cases of workers’ rights abuses are those that tend to get the media attention.  While cases like this do exist, they are the tip of the iceberg.

Though it may not always grab the headlines, the real horror story is the systemic exploitation found in almost every factory, workshop and living room in which garments are manufactured.  Workers across the world face a daily grind of excessive hours, forced overtime, lack of job security, poverty wages, denial of trade union rights, poor health, exhaustion, sexual harassment and mental stress.  Even in factories which on the surface look clean and modern, workers are deprived of their internationally-recognised basic rights. The widespread repression of trade unions often denies workers the means to speak out about the reality of their conditions and the means to defend these rights in the workplace.

Ethical fashion

‘Ethical’ means many different things to many different people, and therefore the answer depends on what you mean by ethical. For some people it means that the product is environmentally friendly or made from organic or recycled materials.  For others it means clothes made by artisans or small producers. Some people may understand it to mean buying second-hand or locally sourced goods. All of these are important issues.

Labour Behind the Label focuses on working conditions within the mainstream garment industry. For us a company would need to ensure that workers throughout their supply chain are able to exercise their internationally-agreed labour rights before they can be called ‘ethical.’

Internationally agreed labour rights include

  • employment is freely chosen
  • payment of a living wage,
  • secure employment
  • safe and healthy working conditions,
  • working hours are not excessive and overtime is voluntary
  • freedom from sexual harassment, discrimination or verbal and/or physical abuse and most importantly,
  • workers are able to speak out and defend and improve their own labour rights through freedom of association to join a trade join and bargain collectively.

Labour Behind the Label cannot provide a list of ‘ethical’ suppliers or ‘clean’ factories. The problems in the garment industry are endemic, the solutions more complex than finding ‘good’ or ‘bad’ suppliers. Whilst working conditions vary, few if any suppliers meet the provisions of our model code.

Sourcing ethically is not easy. It means you have to work with suppliers in order to improve conditions within the workplaces they use or own. There are certain things you can do and questions you can ask to improve working conditions. Below are some guidelines on these.

1. The relationship you have with any supplier you choose is key: 

  • Establishing long term and stable relationships means you are in a better position to work with suppliers to make improvements to working conditions.
  • Work with your supplier to resolve issues that do come up rather than simply pulling your business and moving on.
  • Remember your purchasing decisions can impact on working conditions. If you demand a low price, one of the repercussions could be that workers are paid a low wage. If you place your orders too close to the shipping date or demand late changes to design this might mean workers have to put in excessive overtime to ensure the order is met.
  • When you are planning orders, consult your supplier. Find out how long they need to fulfil an order, when their peak times are, what price you need to pay to ensure workers can be paid a living wage. You should also check your supplier has the capacity to meet your order.

2. Do your homework: 

  • Recognise that your supplier may just be telling you what they think you want to hear. Taking what your supplier says at face value means you may not be getting a full picture of what is really happening in the factory.
  • Ensure that you know what legal standards apply within the country and what international labour standards exist and whether these are being met by your supplier. This is important to ensure at least basic working rights are being respected. (see ‘Background for more info)
  • Contact local organisations such as trade unions and NGOs dealing with workers’ rights issues. This is a good way of gauging what issues workers in that region or in your supplier factory are facing and for example what workers need to earn to provide for themselves and their families.
  • If possible, visit the factory, both by appointment and unannounced. Ask about health and safety, wages, overtime and the presence of a trade union. Emphasize that an active trade union would be an advantage when you choose a supplier. If you want more advice on this, Labour Behind the Label can help.
  • Again, don’t just assume your supplier is being completely transparent. If there is a union then try to speak with its representative outside of the factory and independently of the owner. If there is no independent union, see if a local organisation can talk to some of the workers and report back to you (they may charge a fee for this).

3. Work with others:

  • Find out if your supplier has any kind of certification, like SA8000.  This is no guarantee of decent conditions, but shows at least that your supplier is aware that social concerns may be an issue for their buyers.
  • Find out who the other buyers are at the factory and contact them to see if you can work together to improve working conditions.
  • Contact other companies or designers who are also trying to source ethically.
  • You could join a multi-stakeholder initiative such as the Ethical Trading Initiative or FairWear Foundation to share learning between companies taking action to improve conditions.

For more information

You may also want to look at the Ethical Trading Initiative’s fact sheet ‘Ethical Trade: What does it mean for small businesses?’

This is not as easy a question as it might seem.  Although there are many companies claiming to produce ‘ethically’, there is no universal definition of what this means.  Consumers need to look beyond the marketing and ask what a company making claims to be ethical is actually doing to make a difference.

For us, ‘ethical’ means that workers’ rights need to be respected throughout the supply chain – currently there are no companies that fits the Labour Behind the Label view of what an ethical company should look like.  There are some high street companies that have taken small steps in that direction, but none that have earned the right to be considered ethical. For more info on what high street companies are doing see

There are also some ‘alternative brands’ (people also use terms such as eco-fashion, fair trade or values-led interchangeably) that use a different model of production or trade.  For example, some might source from co-operatives or artisan producers. Others may focus on other ethical issues such as the environment. Some alternative brands are making a genuine effort to challenge the way the garment industry currently operates; others are more hype that substance.

The emergence of alternative brands is a positive sign, but in order for the garment industry to fundamentally change and for workers’ rights to be upheld, mainstream companies need to change. Buying from alternative brands does send a message to mainstream brands that ethics matter, but it’s just as important to demand that mainstream companies change their practices.  A small change by a large company can have as much, if not more, of an impact than setting up a whole new alternative company.