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

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

Blog: Why I won’t be boycotting Primark

The recent events in Bangladesh have filled the media with horrific pictures of human tragedy: mothers mourning their lost children, rescue workers covered in dust unearthing more bodies, death and grief mounting under piles of rubble and boxes of unworn clothes.

Amongst a growing inbox of heart-wrenching testimony and photos from workers and rescuers on the scene, there is one image in particular that is seared into my mind. That of a man, dust covered and dead, hugging a woman who lies limp in his arms. I cannot help but wonder, again and again, at what point did he reach over to hug, protect and comfort her? When did they realise they were both going to die? What were their final words to each other? Did they even know each other or did the terror of a collapsing building bring them together?

Pictures like these should not exist. Not for the price of a cheap pair of jeans or a £2 t-shirt that can be worn a few times and thrown away. Not ever.

The sad fact that sweatshop factories are an ongoing problem, and one that Labour Behind the Label have been campaigning against for years, does not change the shock many people feel at the events of last week. This image, along with the hundreds of others that tell of lives destroyed in the building collapse, has brought to the fore questions over what we, as consumers, can and should do.

In the past few days many people have asked me ”where’s OK to shop now?”, assuming that boycotts are the solution. Wanting to put a dent in the pockets of major brands is an understandable response to the tragedy. However, we urge people not to boycott the brands involved. Instead put the workers at the centre of the issue, and ensure their rights are respected. In response to a boycott, brands may cut production or pull out of factories. This would lead to the loss of jobs, garment workers struggling to feed their families and being unable to send their children to school.

The Rana Plaza tragedy is not an isolated incident. The problems are endemic and widespread in the garment and fashion industry, and all too often brands pay lip service to change without putting the finance and provisions in place to ensure it happens.

Countries such as Bangladesh rely on an expanding garment trade. Boycotting may result in a quick-fix solution by brands who will simply pull out of the country, whereas what is needed is a commitment to long-term, actual and lasting change.

We want brands to work with unions on the ground and to listen to the opinions of those who know the conditions best – the workers themselves. Brands need to commit to improving building safety, working conditions and to ensuring workers are paid a living wage. As consumers, our role must be to push this change by asking relevant questions of the companies whose clothes we wear and by lobbying for change. Pressuring brands such as Primark to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which importantly places workers and local unions in a central role, can make a real difference to the lives of workers. As a consumer you have power beyond simply where you put your money. You have a voice.

Recent campaign successes, such as the 2,800 Indonesian workers from the PT Kizone factory who won a landmark settlement against Adidas, illustrate the power inherent when workers, unions and consumers worldwide unite. By signing petitions and writing to brand CEOs, you can make a positive impact by pressuring them to respect their workers rights.

Because we owe them. Not only for the cheap clothes we wear, but also because we are still here while they are not. We will go on fighting to ensure that never again should global brands deny their responsibilities until it is too late, and never again should they put profit over people. The death of the dust-covered man and woman who lost their lives in each others arms last week was tragically preventable. As have been the hundreds of other people who have died in factories such as Rana Plaza over the last decade. For them we will go on fighting. Never again should people risk their lives for the price of a cheap t-shirt.


By Ilana Winterstein.

First published in the Huffington Post, 2013

Blog: 19 year old Frida Ottesen visits Cambodia to report on sweatshop conditions

Just two years ago, when I was 17 years old, I was busy with my everyday life, and less concerned with what happened outside Norway.   I took little interest is politics, ethics, or solidarity campaigns. I spent most of my time thinking about school, friends, clothes and how I would spend my free time, instead of thinking about how lucky and privileged I really am. Perhaps this attitude resonates with a lot of us among the Norwegian youth?

On 24th April 2013,  the Rana Plaza building collapsed. A nine-storey building that housed several textile factories where nearly 4,000 workers worked. The so-called accident is the deadliest in the history of garment production. I don’t recall taking notice of this tragedy at the time.  It wasn’t until the following year – after I returned home from the production of “Sweatshop” in Cambodia and I attended a Rana Plaza anniversary street action with Future In Our Hands and the Clean Clothes Campaign – that I realized how serious and inhuman this disaster had been.

At least 1,134 people died and several thousand were injured. The day before the accident garment workers discovered cracks in the walls of the Rana Plaza building. All workers in the building were evacuated from the workplace, but the next day the workers were ordered back to work due to strong time pressure on deliveries to Western brands. That day the building collapsed. The world stood still, and when people finally managed to breathe again, people had been killed and injured, and many more had been left behind – some of them orphaned.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, victims and survivors suffer both mentally and financially. All those affected by the tragedy continue to wait for full and fair compensation from the brands sourcing from the Rana Plaza factories. The waiting for compensation must appear endless for victims.  The compensation fund can receive voluntary contributions from anyone, including the buyers, governments, associations, and even individuals.  Despite this, the horrific fact remains: the fund still has not received the full amount it needs to provide full and fair compensation to the Rana Plaza survivors and victims’s families.   Some of the brands with direct links to Rana Plaza have not paid anything into the compensation fund.

In February last year, I went to Cambodia with Anniken, Ludvig, a film crew and the solidarity organization Future In Our Hands. In cooperation with the newspaper Aftenposten, we created a web series, which shows the conditions in the textile industry. The result was “Sweatshop – Dead Cheap Fashion“, a series that raised awareness, provoked, influenced and engaged an incredible number of people, including young people. On this journey I got to experience and witness injustice first hand. I experienced with body and mind what it’s like to live as a garment worker, and I heard directly disturbing stories of many workers.

One day during our trip, Anniken, Ludvig and I went to work in a garment factory. This was a small home business, in which the working conditions were probably far better than at the larger factories. Here we sat for 8 hours and sewed, the same seam over and over again. The day before we had spent with Sokty, one garment worker, who invited us to sleep in her house – a small room about 5 square meters. We slept on the floor. In the morning, we left directly for work without eating breakfast. During the day I spent as a seamstress, I felt the exhaustion, hunger, tiredness and disappointment of having worked for 8 hours and only earned $3 USD. As a garment worker this is the only money I have to survive on. On $3, I need to pay for food for myself and my family. I am responsible for providing money to my parents, and paying for my house, electricity, transport, and clothes.  I must also reserve some of my salary for savings in case of an emergency, like if someone in my family gets sick or needs a doctor.  A few dollars a day is NOT enough!! These are people, like you, and me, and they produce the clothes we wear! Their situation should be much better! It is not human to have to go to work, be treated as a slave, and earn a pittance.


The documentary web series “Sweatshop” did help to raise awareness around the world about the terrible working conditions in the garment industry. Do we see the emergence of a revolution? Some efforts have been made to improve the textile industry, but these efforts haven’t gone far enough. There are many actors in power that need to act if we are to see any of the necessary changes happen. First and foremost, the major brands bear a huge part of the responsibility. Most brands have their production in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and China. However, often times these brands refuse to share details about the factories where the production takes place, keeping secret as much information as possible.  We consumers want to buy clothes from brands that seem credible and it is incredibly important that all companies disclose their supplier list. Transparency is a good thing as it helps to ensure that brands are more responsible and accountable for the factories and workers that produce their clothes.

It is easy to believe that all the responsibility lies with the brands.  But, in fact we all have a responsibility.  While the authorities in producing countries also have a huge responsibility, we, as consumers, also hold much power. The multinational companies provide clothes to fulfill our needs, so if we all step up and say “This is not okay!” we can push the brands to change!

The two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse is only days away.  It is important that we continue to engage and create awareness throughout society. A fierce dedication for change is necessary.  Without it, this wretched industry will continue as it has done for decades. Never before has it been as easy to spread the word about important issues like the urgent need to improve the working conditions of garment workers.  Use social media! Participate in campaigns and encourage people you know to get involved.  Share reports and articles.  Pass on compelling photos and videos. Post Facebook messages to immoral and unethical brands, demanding that they respect garment workers human rights.  We must raise our voices!  We must push brands, factory owners and governments to take responsibility for garment workers human rights so that they can go to safe work places. I urge you to spread awareness about the Rana Plaza tragedy and call upon brands to contribute full and fair compensation to the victims and their families!

Millions of workers around the world are working themselves half to death in unsafe factories and are starving, because we, the consumers, “need” nice and cheap clothes, while the brand owners seek maximal profit. Is this the way we want it to be?  If not, let’s change it.


By Frida Ottesen, 19 years

Watch Sweatshop, the documentary web series Frida stars in, here.

Blog: Fair pay for the people who make our clothes

The industrial struggles being played out in garment-producing countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia today mirrors in many ways the situation faced by UK workers 100 years ago. Fast growing trade unions, based on a mass response to poor pay and conditions. In the midst of the TUC’s Fair Pay Fortnight, where a spotlight is shone on the state of pay for UK workers, Labour Behind the Label has launched a new study today into pay in global fashion chains supplying the UK high street. It shows that fashion companies need to up their game.

Our Tailored Wages study found that although over half of the 40 companies surveyed had some policy wording promising that wages for workers in factories making our clothes should be enough to cover workers’ basic needs, only four companies – Inditex (owners of Zara), Marks & Spencer, Switcher and Tchibo – were able to show any clear steps towards paying a living wage, and ensuring workers making their clothes are able to live with dignity.

This poor response in itself isn’t anything new. Labour Behind the Label has been monitoring company responses to the right to a living wage for over a decade. What is new, however, is that there has been a gradual positive shift in company rhetoric about the topic. Perhaps it is to do with the advent of the UN guidelines on Business and Human rights which state that companies must ‘know and show’ respect for rights, or perhaps it is the result of persistent campaigning efforts. Either way, there is a new trend that has come out of this year’s study – benchmarks.

Over the years, global buyers have continuously argued that, since there is no commonly agreed definition of a living wage for Asian countries, it is impossible for the industry to make concrete steps towards its payment. So the global race to the bottom has continued and wages have spiralled downwards as Asian countries compete to offer ever-lower minimum wages and attract global business. But since the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (a network of Asian trade unions and workers rights activists campaigning for a living wage in the garment sector) launched a definition of a living wage in 2009, things have started to turn around in the debate, and we are starting to see results. The Asia Floor Wage (AFW) benchmark puts a purchasing power figure on what a living wage should really mean, and this has made tangible the living wage concept for Asia, similar perhaps to what the launch of the London living wage did in the UK debate.

One in five of the 40 companies surveyed in this latest report – Aurora Fashions, Bestseller, G-Star, Monsoon, New Look, Puma, Switcher and Tchibo – have now started to monitor their pay in factories using wage ladders which include the AFW benchmark. This means wage progress is now measured against a number of figures, with the eventual goal of a defined living wage, enough to support a family. Putting a value on this commitment has allowed companies to qualify their goal and this is now starting to be worked out in buying practice.

Although a small win, this gives me hope for the Asian wage struggle. The use of benchmarks by companies has the potential to disrupt the race to the bottom and establish a wage floor. Their use also empowers wage negotiations at a factory level and has huge potential to boost organising efforts. If workers know that key buyers sourcing from a factory have made a commitment to pay enough to cover a certain living wage figure, this should assist trade unions in making wage demands that represent the real needs of workers, and open up a previously non-existent space in wage negotiations.

There is still a long way to go, but maybe this is the start of something.

By Anna McMullen, first published in Touch Stone Blog, 2014.