Labour Behind the Label



``Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, necessary social services, and the right to security...``

– United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25.1

A living wage is a human right.

The global fashion industry is worth over $1.2 trillion annually, yet the garment workers who fuel the industry earn poverty wages, well below what is needed to live in dignity.

Workers are forced to work long hours to earn a wage that won’t cover the basics including rent, food, medical bills and education for their children. Many garment workers earn their national minimum wage, however this is inadequate for their needs.

Minimum wages, usually defined by governments, are set in the context of fierce competition as countries fight to keep foreign investors, and the figures are not enough to live on. In most cases a minimum wage is well below what is required for a living wage, which is a human right.

The problem is complicated further when the millions of piece-rate workers (who earn according to how many garments they produce) and homeworkers within the industry are considered.  When workers are paid piece-rate, rather than by the number of hours they work, it becomes near-impossible to earn a living wage during a working week.

This informal employment makes workers more vulnerable to seasonal variations in work and often means they lose out on security payments, such as pensions or health insurance.

The threat of brands pulling out of factories and workers losing their jobs if wages and other costs increase contributes to the sense of fear that prevents workers from joining trade unions.

Many companies are wary of adopting a living wage for fear it will mean being priced out of the market.  Furthermore, factories that produce lines for a variety of retailers refuse wage changes that would complicate their pay system, particularly if they were expected to pay higher wages for the production of certain lines.

Only by working together can the brands end the downward spiral in prices that they have started and on which their competitiveness depends.

Labour Behind the Label believes that workers are entitled to be paid a living wage.  We define this as one which enables workers to meet their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport, as well as providing a small 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 standard of living of others nearby.

Finally, it should be based on a standard working week of no more than 48 hours, before overtime, and should apply after any deductions. Overtime hours should be paid at an overtime rate and be properly and clearly recorded on wage slips.

We believe that brand buyers need to:

  • Develop strategies to improve wages, above and beyond minimum wages, in their supplier base.
  • Engage in good-faith negotiations with factories to ensure that a living wage can be paid out of prices paid to the factory. Accept that this may increase the cost they pay to suppliers.
  • Make it clear to suppliers that they expect workers to be paid a living wage.
  • Make it clear to suppliers that negotiating wages via a functioning collective bargaining agreement will not come at the expense of their custom.
  • Ensure that local trade unions, who are better placed to get information from workers, and know the local cost of living, are involved in supplier audits.

Work with other companies, trade unions and governments on a national and industry-wide level to develop strategies to raise wages, through active participation in multi stakeholder initiatives.

Read more about our campaign for a living wage here

Wages are so low and the cost of living so high, a young Pakistani garment worker finds it very hard to make ends meet. At 18, she is the only earning member of her family of three. She is an only child and both her parents are jobless. She spends almost 40% of her income on the rent of a one bedroom house. When told that companies check that workers should get at least the minimum wage set by the government, which they all do, she said:

“If they think this is enough, they should all try to live on this amount for a month and then decide if it is OK.”

Employment in the garment industry offers hope for people like this young Pakistani woman, in areas where work is scarce. In many countries those who can get jobs in factories like hers are considered lucky, and young girls leave their families in rural areas to travel hundreds of miles in search of them. Yet the reality when they arrive is tough.

This is not an extreme example: this is the norm.