Report: Stitching Our Shoes

Report: Stitching Our Shoes

New report reveals hidden workforce of homeworkers stitching our leather shoes

Our new report, ‘Stitching Our Shoes’, uncovers the grim reality of homeworkers in India, the invisible female workforce who stitch the leather uppers of shoes bound for sale in the UK.

The shoe industry is an immense global business, with over 24 billion pairs produced last year alone, equating to three pairs of shoes made for every single person living. The UK is a key part of this industry as one of the largest footwear markets in the world with, on average, each person in the UK buying five pairs of shoes per year.

Complex global supply chains mean that tracing a pair of shoes from the shop floor through the factories, homes and tanneries in which they originated is virtually impossible. A lack of regulations allows this multi-billion pound industry to continue to operate without transparency. Issues with workers safety and poverty wages abound in an industry built on exploitation, however those at the bottom of the chain are homeworkers. These are the ‘invisible’ women who stitch leather uppers in their home, earning next to nothing, with no security or benefits.

There are thousands of women working as homeworkers in the leather shoes industry in India alone. Stitching just one pair of uppers could take her up to one hour. For this work she will earn the equivalent of less than 10 pence per pair of leather shoes, far from a minimum wage let alone a living wage. This is back-breaking labour-intensive work that requires the precision of hand stitching instead of a machine. The work often leaves women with health issues and complaints such as hand numbness, eye strain, back problems, and skin rashes from chemicals used to dye the leather are all commonplace, and unlike their factory counterparts, homeworkers have no health insurance to allow them to seek medical attention.

Homeworkers receive a bundle of leather uppers to be stitched by a factory middleman each morning. The middleman returns that evening to collect them and to pay her piece rate poverty wages for each pair she stitches. There is no guarantee there will be more work the next day. They provide the flexible and cheap labour demanded by the shoe industry.

We completed the work we had yesterday. We may or may not have work tomorrow. There is no job security.


Sumitra, leather shoe homeworker, South India.

Homeworkers are often women from the lowest social strata or class, who have very few other options available to them. Due to gender divisions, they may feel restricted to home working to enable them to also complete their unpaid domestic duties, such as looking after young children or elderly relatives. Due to the isolated nature of their work, it is difficult for homeworkers to organise and collectively demand their rights. In many cases they do not know which brands they are producing for.

We have nothing. That’s why we know this is employer exploitation. We have no other way. That’s why we are involved in this (work). If I had any other income, I definitely wouldn’t do this.


Shanti, a homeworker from Tamil Nadu, India.


What should shoe brands do?

All shoe brands should publicly map their supply chains, from the processing of leather to the final product.  This should be done in a transparent way, in collaboration with other companies, trade unions, NGOs and workers.

Homeworkers should be recognised as part of the supply chain, and given equal treatment to other workers including rights to a living wage, health insurance, other forms of social protection, health and safety in the workplace, security of employment, and to organise collectively for their rights.

To find out more, please read the full report.

This report is part of the Change Your Shoes campaign and has been produced with Labour Behind the Label, Homeworkers Worldwide and Cividep.


Download the report here: Stitching Our Shoes Report PDF


Published in 2016.

Blog: Buying ethically?

Blog: Buying ethically?

Behind the glamour of London Fashion Week and the aspirational images in glossy magazines is the reality of the global fashion industry: a grim picture of women living in abject poverty, struggling to survive whilst making the clothes sold on UK high streets for major fashion brands.

As consumers, many of us try to counteract this image by choosing to buy ethically. In the face of sweatshop labour headlines we may opt for the brand that seemingly has an ethical stance, hoping our money will reflect our morals. However, how can we be sure that this is the case? A lack of transparency throughout the garment and shoe industries mean that making ethical choices is not as simple as it may seem.

High street brands such as Marks & Spencer (M&S) and H&M proudly put their ethical credentials front and centre, with marketing for both brands focusing on good practice including eco collections, clothes recycling, sustainable sourcing and workers rights. Both brands have won plaudits for their ethics, with M&S receiving over 100 awards since launching Plan A, including being named ‘Most Ethical High Street Clothing Retailer’ by Ethical Consumer Magazine in 2014, winning consumer trust and increased sales.

Crucially, as poverty remains a key factor in maintaining the cycle of sweatshop labour, both brands have publicly declared a commitment to ensuring a living wage is possible for garment workers in their supply chains. In 2010, M&S launched their Plan A sustainability programme – pledging to ensure suppliers in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were able to pay workers ‘a fair living wage’ by 2015. H&M is working towards paying 850,000 garment workers a fair living wage by 2018.

Yet are these ethics being played out on the factory floor? Do the workers actually making their clothes feel the effects of commitments to a living wage? We interviewed 150 M&S workers from eight supplier factories in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, and over 50 workers from six H&M supplier factories in Cambodia to see whether the significant wage increase promised was being paid.

Our findings, in our new report ‘Do We Buy It?’, show that far from a living wage these workers are living in abject poverty, sharing slum housing in 3×3 meter shacks, with 2-3 other workers. Many have no running water and share outside toilets with up to 15 people. These women work 10 – 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and yet still don’t earn enough to afford the basics such as nutritious food or an education for their children.

Salaheya Khatun, a worker for a Bangladeshi M&S supplier says: “I am in debt by around 1000 taka every month because I need to pay for groceries and supplies on credit. It is difficult because if I had cash I could negotiate on the price, but I cannot negotiate when paying credit. Buying on credit feels like a disgrace…I just want to be able to support my family.”

Salaheya is not alone. In fact, we found that 60% of all M&S workers interviewed were living in mounting debt just to meet their basic needs. In Sri Lanka, M&S workers were earning on average £3.23 for a 10 hour day. Illegal levels of overtime were common, with women working up to 110 hours per month over their contracted hours, and still remaining in debt. One worker from India stated: “Our income is not enough. We don’t buy eggs, meat, fish or fruits because of high costs”

This is not the tagline to M&S’s award-winning Plan A sustainability roadmap.

So, what can we do to challenge the notion that brands can so wholly control their image through corporate social responsibility rhetoric?

We can demand transparency

M&S stated in the 2014 Plan A report that the commitment on supply chain living wage had been ‘achieved’, but they give no evidence to back this up. M&S use an internal process to evaluate their position, with no data or costs available. This lack of transparency, present throughout the garment and shoes industries, makes checking on the facts behind the statements virtually impossible. Similarly, H&M have not published a benchmark for the ‘fair living wage’ that they are aiming for is. Without this figure it is difficult to measure their success.

For consumers to truly be able to choose to shop ethically, we need to know that the human rights of the workers making the products are being upheld. We need to know by having access to data that proves it, not by simply being asked to believe brands who profit in the millions from the labour of the young, poor, migrant and uneducated women they exploit.

Brands need to publicly declare their benchmark for a living wage and share their factory supplier lists, their audit reports, and other important data such as wages paid per supplier by grade. We need to hold brands accountable to their promises. Only once they supply this information can their ethical marketing be taken as anything more than CSR spin.

By Ilana Winterstein

February 2016

Press Release: Shopaholics, ditch your shoe guilt

Press Release: Shopaholics, ditch your shoe guilt

Shoeaholics, ditch your shoe guilt

Labour Behind the Label’s new Change Your Shoes campaign tackles working conditions and transparency in shoe industry


Ahead of shopping for your perfect Christmas party outfit this year, Labour Behind the Label, part of a network of organisation that supports and defends garment workers worldwide, are launching the Change Your Shoes campaign in the UK.

Made up of 18 organisations across Europe, Indonesia, India and China, the campaign is calling on the EU for regulations which promote, protect, and respect workers’ rights throughout the supply chain. Specifically, the campaign is calling for shoe workers to be paid a living wage and for companies who sell shoes in the EU to be forced to publish all information on their supply chain, from the factory to shop floor, including the use of toxic chemicals and working conditions.

The campaign has launched the Change Your Shoes app, which is free and takes just seconds to download. The app informs you about the shoe industry, sets out the demands for change and allows you to record your steps in support of the petition – donating them for the virtual march to Brussels.

This is no cobblers – by downloading the app you will be taking a small step to improving the conditions for shoe workers globally, and making your soles feel better.

So what do we know about the shoe industry?

Over 24 billion pairs of shoes were made globally in 2014 – that’s more than 3 pairs of shoes per person. The vast majority of shoes are made in Asia (88%), where working conditions frequently pose a serious health threat to employees.

The shoe industry is currently opaque and lacks transparency. Systemic human rights abuses pervade shoe making, from poverty pay, long working hours and denial of trade union rights, to significant risks to workers’ health and the environment through harmful chemicals and dyes.

The use of hazardous and toxic chemicals in leather products seriously endangers workers, as well as the consumers in Europe. For instance a by-product of leather production, Chromium VI, releases highly toxic carcinogens.

Earlier this year the Change Your Shoes campaign commissioned a European Nielsen survey. This found that 50% of Europeans have little or no information on shoe production. The survey also found that 63% of Europeans believe that the EU should impose regulations on goods entering the European market to ensure workers’ rights are protected.

By downloading the Change Your Shoes app when buying your Christmas party gear, and virtually stepping your way to Brussels, you can feel good in your shoes – and not just because they look good.

Your support will be a step towards the EU introducing legislation to regulate the industry, protect workers and to inform consumers in an easy way about the conditions under which their shoes were produced and the toxic content they may have.

Commenting on the initiative, Ilana Winterstein, from Labour Behind the Label said:

“We all love to buy a pair of killer new shoes for that long-awaited Christmas party, but how many of us actually know anything about where our shoes are made? Few of us are aware that only 2% of the shoes price is paid to the workers who made them, or that many leather tanning poses a serious risk to the workers’ health.

“The Change Your Shoes campaign is calling on the EU to make a difference to the lives of the millions of women employed to make our shoes. This step-change in regulation would protect workers, and help inform consumers about the toxins in the shoes they buy.

“Downloading the app, which will take just a matter of seconds, can help you walk tall this Christmas – no matter how high your heels are – in the knowledge that you are helping to ensure that tragedies like the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh are a thing of the past.”


Notes to Editor:

About Labour Behind the Label

Labour Behind the Label supports garment workers’ efforts worldwide to improve their working conditions, through awareness raising, information provision and encouraging international solidarity between workers and consumers.

More information on Labour Behind the Label can be found here: https://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/who-we-are/

More information on the Change Your Shoes campaign can be found here: www.labourbehindthelable.org/shoes


About the Change Your Shoes app

The Change Your Shoes app can be downloaded for free from Google Play or the Apple Store on your smart phone.

The app sets out the demands for changes to the shoe industry, and allows you to record your steps and donate them for the virtual march to Brussels – steps will be collected from supporters all over Europe.

About People’s Meeting for the European Year of Development

Labour Behind the Label are hosting a people’s meeting on 12th December at Resource for London. The event marks the last of their activities as part of the EU International Year of Development and will be focused on the EU and workers’ rights.

The address for the event is:

Resource for London

356 Holloway Road


N7 6PA

Blog: A Moldovan garment worker earns just £95 a month

Blog: A Moldovan garment worker earns just £95 a month

Tisu Ghosh is a Regional Coordinator for Labour Behind the Label and has been volunteering since May 2014 as part of the Fit For Fair project.

In October 2014 we joined Labour Behind the Label’s activist partner organisations from around Europe at the Fit for Fair Conference in Chisinau, Moldova; a multi-national project to raise awareness of the poor labour conditions employed in manufacturing for the multi-billion dollar sportswear industry. It was an incredible three days with discussions, shared learning, talks with Moldovan politicians and even a visit to a garment factory! I was really privileged to meet so many people passionate about solidarity in the garment industry and was definitely something I would never have experienced without being part of the Labour Behind the Label family.

This is the 2nd of the 3 year project, bringing together five partners representing six different countries; Germany, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and the UK(us!). Lucy (another Regional Coordinator) and myself were invited as ‘multipliers’; people who had learned about the campaign and joined in spreading the word, through volunteering as regional co-ordinators for Labour behind the Label. It was fantastic to learn about the amazing work the partners were doing and the innovative ways they were finding to fight for fairer wages, such CIR’s involvement with the Association of Critical Shareholders; a group of Adidas shareholders who donated their shares for a day so that human rights organisations could attend and speak at the AGM. It was also a fantastic chance to share progress of the #ALLIN campaign, especially the inspirational story of Cambodian union leader Eam Rin and her UK speaking tour earlier in the year.

One of the biggest highlights was a visit to a garment factory located in central Chisinau. Most of us had never seen an actual garment factory before so we weren’t sure what to expect. We had already been told that the factory had contracts with many big European brands, reminding me of the victims of collapsed factories in Bangladesh, like Rana Plaza where Labour Behind the Label and factory workers are still fighting for fair compensation.

In fact it was completely different to those we’d heard about in Eastern developing countries. The factory was clean, bright and well lit, with huge windows spanning the length of the shop floor. The owner took us on a tour, explaining the process of turning gigantic sheets of white textiles into a variety of ready to wear garments. She proudly told us how they provide fair conditions for their workers, offering study programs, progressive work patterns and double over-time pay.

This factory though runs against the grain. In Moldova garment workers earn less than garment workers in Cambodia do. The average (four person) family in Moldova needs about £312 a month to meet basic needs. Moldovan garment workers take home, including over time, about £95 a month.

This was obviously an example of a well built factory using good business practice, but what was most apparent in the factory was the workers themselves; the army of seamstresses, cutters, dyers, ironers and various other jobs, tirelessly constructing garment after garment. The scale of the operation and rate of production was far larger than I could have imagined. The constant clicking, whirring and humming of machinery were deafening, and even though it was well ventilated the heat made me a little drowsy. In fact we were there in the off season, with the factory running at only half capacity. Watching the seamstresses construct perfect, complicated patterns with unwavering concentration amongst all this was a really humbling sight.

It really drove home the point that even the cheapest t-shirt requires huge amounts of highly skilled labour that goes completely unseen when we’re shopping on the high street. It isn’t right that so much value can be negated by the race to lower production costs through unfair wages or unsafe working conditions. That’s why it’s so important we don’t forget the garment workers and support them in the fight against exploitation.

I never thought volunteering at Labour behind the Label would lead to such an amazing opportunity and I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about labour rights. Get involved at https://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/support-us

We Won! Rana Plaza compensation announced

We Won! Rana Plaza compensation announced

Labour Behind the Label is delighted to announce a major campaign victory with the confirmation that the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund has finally met its target of $30 million, following a large anonymous donation.
Labour Behind the Label, as part of the Clean Clothes Campaign, has been campaigning since the disaster in April 2013 to demand that brands and retailers provided compensation to its victims. Since then over one million consumers from across Europe and around the world have joined actions against many of the major high street companies whose products were being made in one of the five factories housed in the structurally compromised building. These actions forced many brands to finally pay donations and by the second anniversary the Fund was still $2.4 million dollars short of its $30million target. A large donation received by the Fund in the last few days has now led to the Fund meeting its target.

“This day has been long in coming. Now that all the families impacted by this disaster will finally receive all the money that they are owed, they can finally focus on rebuilding their lives. This is a remarkable moment for justice,” said Ineke Zeldenrust of the Clean Clothes Campaign. “This would not have been possible without the support of citizens and consumers across Europe who stuck with the campaign over the past two years. Together we have proved once again that European consumers do care about the workers who make their clothes – and that their actions really can make a difference.”

The Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund was set up by the ILO in January 2014 to collect funds to pay awards designed to cover loss of income and medical costs suffered by the Rana Plaza victims and their families when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in the garment industry’s worst ever disaster.

In November 2014 the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee announced that is would need around $30million to pay in full over 5,000 awards granted through the scheme. However, the failure of brands and retailers linked to Rana Plaza to provide sufficient and timely donations into the Fund has, until today, prevented the payment of the awards from being completed.

The Clean Clothes Campaign will continue to support the Rana Plaza victims who are persuing further payments in recognition of the pain and suffering inflicted upon them as a result of corporate and institutional negligence. These payments fall outside the scope of the Arrangement.

The CCC also calls for policy changes to ensure that those affected by future disasters will receive more timely support. They welcome a new initiative by the ILO in Bangladesh to develop a national workplace injury scheme for the country’s 4 million garment workers. They also urge European politicians to develop better regulation of supply chains to ensure that brands and retailers are held properly accountable in the future.

“This is a huge victory – but its been too long in the making” says Ineke Zeldenrust from CCC: “That brands with a collective annual profit of over $20 billions took two years and significant public pressure to come up with a mere $30 million is an indictment of the voluntary nature of social responsibility. We now need to look at ways to ensure that access to such remedy is provided by brands and retailers as a matter of course, and not only when public outrage makes doing nothing impossible.

June 2015.