Working Hours

Working Hours

Dhaka, Bangladesh – March 2010. 

Unacceptable working conditions are often accompanied by long and unrealistic working hours.  Factory managers often force overtime, particularly when deadlines are imminent.  In many cases, overtime is demanded at the last minute and workers are given no choice; any protest on their part could lead to dismissal.  Long working hours without sufficient breaks can then lead to health problems.  Women in particular, have been reported to struggle with the demands of a stressful factory environment combined with pressures from home; many women working in the garment industry are solely responsible for their families.  Whilst garment workers are attempting to support themselves and their families, stressful conditions are making this task even tougher.

Long working hours and forced overtime are a major concern among garment workers.  Factory managers typically push employees to work between 10 and 12 hours, sometimes 16 to 18 hours a day. When order deadlines loom, working hours get longer.  A seven-day working week is becoming the norm during the peak season, particularly in China, despite limits placed by the law.[/vc_column_text]

We work from 8 am till noon, then have our lunch break. After lunch we work from 1 to 5 pm. We do overtime every day, from 5.30 pm. During the peak season, we work until 2 or 3 am. Although exhausted, we have no choice. We cannot refuse overtime: our basic wage is too low. If we want to rest, our employer forces us to keep working.

 Phan, a 22-year-old machinist in a Thai garment factory


Overtime is usually compulsory. Workers are mostly informed at the last minute that they are expected to work extra hours.  In many instances, workers report being threatened with dismissal and subjected to penalties as well as verbal abuse if they cannot work the additional hours.  One report tells how a Bulgarian factory which supplies European brands imposes fines on those who do not work the overtime required; how Chinese workers were fined RMB 30 (US$ 3.60) for refusing to work overtime; and how workers from three other Chinese factories were prevented from resigning during peak production periods by having several weeks’ wages withheld by management.  Often, workers are not paid the overtime rate stipulated by law.

Long and irregular working hours make it difficult for women to meet the multiple demands made on their time.  The combined pressures of factory work and responsibilities at home often lead to stress-related illnesses, including depression, headaches, ulcers, high blood pressure and fatigue.  The push for more flexible working hours and the increase in informal working arrangements are further exacerbating the problem of excessively long working hours.

The Right to a Living Wage

The Right to a Living Wage

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

The global fashion industry is worth over £36 billion per year in the UK, and yet the majority of its workers rarely earn more than two dollars a day.  Many have to work excessive hours for this meager amount and struggle to properly feed, clothe and educate their families.  In many cases, garment workers earn less that the national poverty levels set by governments and international organisations.  This situation is further antagonized when prices paid to suppliers are cut by brands and retailers.

When challenged on the wage issue, most companies claim that workers in their supply chains should be paid the minimum wage or the industry standard in that country, whichever is higher.  But this isn’t enough.  Minimum wages, usually defined by governments, are set in the context of ferocious competition and consequently often fall well below these governments’ own poverty thresholds.  Furthermore, a minimum wage is often well below what is required for decent living standards and research indicates that many suppliers are not paying this legal minimum.

The problem is complicated further when the millions of piece-rate workers and homeworkers within the industry are considered.  When workers are paid for the number of garments they produce, rather than the number of hours they work, it becomes near-impossible for them 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. Workers have reported that there is often a delay in wage payments, which means they are then forced into debt in order to avoid losing money.  The garment workforce is 80% female, and many of them have responsibilities as parents or carers for other family members.  Many young people travel from the countryside to work in the garment industry and rely on sending their small wages back to their families.

Labour Behind the Label believes that workers are entitled to be paid a living wage.

 This is defined as one which provides workers with a discretionary income that meets their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport. It should be enough to provide for the basic needs of workers and their families, to allow them to participate fully in society and to 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 this should be properly and clearly recorded on a wage slip.

Positive steps are being taken in the campaign for living wages. 

Many companies now have Codes of Conduct which outline the standards that they commit to upholding.  However, many of these practices are having little effect in the communities that are in desperate need of change.  In Bangladesh, wages have fallen by as much as half, despite increased consumer spending on clothes.  Companies need to investigate why their apparent commitment is not having the effect it should, as many workers still struggle to survive on the breadline.

Until recently it had been difficult to define a living wage.  The Asia Floor Wage Alliance uses the same definition of a living wage as Labour Behind the Label and takes this forward to calculate a pan-Asian ‘floor wage’ – literally a base level wage – which should function regardless of nationality, gender or workplace to provide a singular minimum living wage figure for all workers across the Asian garment industry.

It is certainly becoming increasingly necessary to adopt an agreed ‘floor wage’ across the whole industry.  The threat of relocation 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 the prices on which their competitiveness depends.

A ‘floor wage’ should give suppliers the confidence to negotiate prices that factor in a living wage, and to set meaningful minimum wages that will benefit the workers.

Further information available from:

Report: No Excuses for Homework

Report: No Excuses for Homework

Report: No Excuses for Homework

Working conditions in the Indonesian leather and footwear sector.

Indonesia is the fourth largest footwear manufacturer worldwide after China, India, and Vietnam, producing one billion pairs of shoes in 2015 which equals a world share of 4.4 %. It is hence worth taking a look at Indonesia to learn more about the social and ecological footprint of leather shoes worn in Europe. But despite some initial achievements and the existence of considerable legislation, working conditions in the Indonesian leather and footwear sector leave much to be desired. This is the result of report published today by SÜDWIND and INKOTA.

Download the report here >>

Download the factsheet here >>

Published March 2017.

The right to dream

The right to dream

The right to dream: homeworkers in the UK and India


Guest blog by Rachel McCarthy


Wednesday, 5:30am. Rose wakes up and makes breakfast for her two young children. Rushing out the door, she walks an hour to work in the rain as she can’t afford the bus fare. And there she sits crouching at the bench, sewing seams for garments at 6p an hour. The men at the factory earn 8p and upwards. After ten hours work, her fingers ache and her head throbs from the noise of the machines. At home after cooking tea, ironing, and seeing her daughters to bed, she finally hits the pillow at 11:30pm, exhausted by the drudgery of the day.

Rose lived in inner city London in the 1970s. Her story is emblematic of women’s lives across the UK. The Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970, with the intention of women and men to be paid equal wages. In reality, though, women endured more years of discrimination and inequality.


Female factory workers in the 1970s 


I visited the exhibition Women and Work at the Tate Modern, which uncovered the lives of these invisible women in our country. I was struck by the account of Jean, a factory worker who smuggled bread into her stockings. Jean felt hungry and couldn’t wait until lunch to eat, so she took a bite- but she was caught and fired on the spot. Mary, another woman at the same factory, was found in tears because her weekly wages were docked for no reason, meaning she wouldn’t have enough money to pay her rent. With the help of the union representative, it turned out this was a ‘mistake’ which was corrected.

It’s shocking to think just two generations ago, women in this county- maybe your mother or grandmother- were trampled on in like this every day. Would you put up with it?

The demand for cheap labour didn’t stop there, and it was women who paid the price. Factory owners reacted quickly to the Equal Pay Act, downgrading people’s jobs and forcing women to work from their homes.


Homeworkers (Margaret Harrison, 1977) testifies to the real lives of women in the UK who were paid poverty wages for brands like Debenhams and Dorothy Perkins.


Ordinary women, desperate for work, had no choice but to work at home without legal rights or protection. They became invisible. Their hands were swollen and painful but they couldn’t afford to take time off sick. They got into debt when companies didn’t pay them their wages. They knew they were being exploited, but all the while they kept working and fighting for their children to have a better life.

Today, 40 years later, it is women in Asia who are the homeworkers. The effect of globalisation means that the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged women are now fighting this battle. Supply chains have changed dramatically, but the back-breaking exploitation and discrimination of working women remains. In fact, it’s become much worse.

In Ambur, a dry, dusty town in south India, many Dalit and Muslim women earn a living by stitching uppers on shoes. In the report Stitching Our Shoes- Homeworkers in South India, we found women are paid around 6 rupees a piece. This is about 96 rupees (£1) a day- well below the poverty line. These shoes are sold for between £40 and £100 on our high streets.

Women living in poverty have no choice but to take this work. “Today we may earn 50 rupees but there is no guarantee that we will have an income tomorrow,” says Sumitra, an Indian homeworker. “Those who work in the company have some guarantee for work but we don’t. If we fall sick and cannot work, then the day’s income is lost.”


A female homeworker stiches shoes in south India


Women sit, bent over on the floor for hours on end, repeatedly stitching the thread through the tough leather upper and pulling the needle to the right tension. Runa describes how the “numbness of the hands” means the homeworker “can’t even do the household everyday washing and can’t carry things quickly. So due to all the hand work, she is suffering.”

Workers are provided with the thread to stich the uppers, but they have to buy their own needles, trapping them into a cycle of debt. They suffer from pain in their back, neck and shoulders, and often have problems with their eyesight and chronic headaches.

It’s hard to understand how workers endure these inhumane conditions, day in, day out. But these women are under the thumb of powerful companies and intermediaries, who ruthlessly exploit their cheap labour. “We have nothing,” says Shanti. “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 have any other income, definitely I wouldn’t do this.”


A workers’ rights protest in Bangladesh


But these women are not powerless. There are signs that they are beginning to fight back. In the villages surrounding Ambur, small groups of women have started to associate and advocate for better pay. It’s early days, and there is resistance from the powerful intermediaries and some of the workers who are afraid to put themselves forward. We can show our solidarity by demanding that retailers recognise homeworkers in their supply chains. I know there is hope that these women will fight for the rights and dignity they deserve.

I am struck by how the lives of these ordinary women from London and India- Rose, Jean and Mary; Sumitra, Runa and Shanti; are threaded together by shared experiences. Drudgery. Monotony. Broken dreams. But they believe they are better than this. Joining together is a surely the way they can protect and keep themselves strong.

Is the sunshine and beauty of nature only made for the fortunate few, or for all humanity to share?” This was published in Women’s Industrial News in London in 1914, but it echoes true today. All workers, women and men, deserve to earn a living with dignity. We won’t give up the fight. “Yes, it is bread we fight for- but we fight for roses too!


Long Hours Versus Efficiency by Miss Cave for the Industrial Sectional Committee in the Women’s Industrial News, 1914.

Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry by Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt, Mary Kelly 1973-75, an exhibition at the Tate Modern.

Homeworkers by Margaret Harrison 1977, an exhibition at the Tate Modern.

Stitching Our Shoes- Homeworkers in South India a joint report by Homeworkers Worldwide, Labour Behind the Label and Cividep, March 2016.

Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim, 1911.


Blog: The Invisible Women Who Stitch Our Shoes

Blog: The Invisible Women Who Stitch Our Shoes

The phrase ‘sweatshop labour’ conjurs up images of factory settings in far away lands with row upon row of machines operated by young women, all working long hours for poverty pay to earn profits in the millions for the western garment and shoe companies they stitch for. You might think of factory disasters, such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in which over 1,130 workers were killed or the 2012 Ali Enterprises factory fire where 254 workers lost their lives. But you probably won’t think of a woman, we will call her Jyoti*, sitting bent double on the floor of her home, hand stitching leather uppers for shoes to be sold on UK high streets.

Stitching just one pair of uppers could take her up to one hour. For this work she will earn, if for example she is one of the thousands of women homeworking in the leather shoe industry in India alone, the equivalent of less than 10 pence per pair of leather shoes. 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.

The maximum Jyoti can stitch in one day is 16 pairs, earning her under £1.60.
Although cost of living differs, this is simply not enough to cover her basic needs. A kilo of rice alone costs her 43 pence. Jyoti earns well below a minimum wage, let alone a living wage, yet “whether we like it or not, we have to stitch. It is our only means of livelihood” she said. As a married woman with young children at home to care for, she combines her long hours stitching with unpaid domestic work, taking care of the home, children and her elderly parents. Given the entrenched gendered division of domestic work, for many homeworkers like Jyoti stitching leather uppers for shoes offers her the only opportunity for paid work that also allows her to maintain her family responsibilities, so cutting out homeworkers from the supply chain is not the answer.


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.

Homeworking in the shoe industry is not confined to India, instead there is a global workforce of women, often from the lowest social strata or caste, working from their homes across the world, from Bulgaria to India, Portugal to North Africa.

Uniting these women are: poverty wages, well below those of their already low factory counterparts; extreme job insecurity, they have no contracts and are employed on a daily basis; lack of any recognition or benefits, such as health insurance or a pension, that are afforded to factory shoe workers. “We completed the work we got yesterday. We may or may not have work tomorrow. There is no job security.” said Sumitra, a homeworker from Tamil Nadu in India. They are a hidden workforce, providing both the low-cost labour and the flexibility so sought after in the footwear industry.

This is the invisible underside of global shoe production. An ugly sole stitched from the exploitation of homeworkers, and one which remains unseen by consumers and often even by the brands themselves.

Today, on International Women’s Day, Labour Behind the Label with Homeworkers Worldwide are launching a new report, Stitching Our Shoes, looking at the key role homeworkers play in the production of leather shoes sold on UK high streets.

As shoe consumption continues to rise, it is vital that we stop the exploitation and poverty trap that women homeworkers find themselves in. The answer is not the knee-jerk reaction that some brands may advocate of banning homeworking from their supply chains. This would result in homeworkers losing their jobs and the meager income they currently rely on, leaving them desperate and with no social security net to catch them. In fact, such a response may not even be possible, as homeworking is an established part of the supply chain and this may push the practice further into the shadows, thereby leaving homeworkers even more vulnerable to unscrupulous agents who take a cut of their pay: “We cannot negotiate with the middleman because the middleman knows many people who really need and want a job. So if I negotiate for one rupee or two rupees…They will give (the work) to some other area” Runa.

There is a lack of transparency that runs through the shoes industry that enables exploitation on this scale. For change to truly happen brands need to publicly map their supply chains, to acknowledge homeworkers as key part of their production workforce, and to ensure that their rights are respected and that they are paid a living wage. They must do this through publicly sharing social audit reports and due diligence efforts. They must do this to ensure that women like Shanti face a better life:“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”.


*Names have been changed to protect workers indentites

This blog was first published in Huffington Post and EcouTerre in March 2016. 

By Ilana Winterstein