By MELISSA WELLHAM
When I walk into pretty much any cheap Australian clothing chain: I am torn.
On the one hand, I think, “Oh my god, that embellished sequin top is so cheap!”
On the other hand I think, “But do I really need yet another cheap embellished sequin top?”
And then on my third hand, which I pull out whenever dealing with ethical conundrums, I think, “But how on earth can this top possibly cost so little? Where are these clothes being made? What are these people being paid?”
In an exposé on 60 Minutes last Sunday night, in which reporters and cameramen were given unprecedented access into clothing factories in Bangladesh, we found out: not much.
According to the report, in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, there are about 5000 garment factories churning out clothes. Millions of items of clothing, being made for as little as one dollar. Unfortunately, that is usually how much the workers are being paid each day.
One factory featured on 60 Minutes created one million t-shirts for Kmart each month. Each of these factories employs thousands of people. And many of these factories, are making clothes for Australian retailers.
These workers might be earning as little as a dollar a day, for 12 hours work. The best paid workers that the 60 Minutes team came across were earning $100 a month.
Even though the cost of living in Bangladesh does not compare to Australia, this salary is not significant And these workers often have to pay about half their wages to local landlords to rent small, concrete rooms close to the factories.
These rooms have limited furnishings, and the people who inhabit them have few possessions. Entire families are often crowded into one small room together; or single workers will be put into a room with up to five others, and forced to share.
The conditions inside the factories are no better. They are hot and humid – and one level of a factory can have up to 1000 people working on the floor. The factories that allowed the 60 Minutes camera crew inside their walls, all claimed to follow appropriate legal and safety guidelines – but many factories in the area do not. The workers are put under extreme pressure to churn out clothes, and get garments ready for the next shipment to Australia.
Child labour is illegal and was not shown in the 60 Minutes report– but it is reportedly widespread.
60 Minutes reporter Michael Usher talks about the ‘Rag Trade’ in the clip below.
So are the people working in these factories are being taken advantage of: by their employers, by their landlords, and – by extension – the Australian companies that sell the cloths they make? And what about those of us who buy the clothes?
In April of this year, a nine-storey concrete garment factory in Dhaka collapsed, burying hundreds of people in rubble. Sources report the final death toll standing at 1,129. Some of this number were children who were staying in the building’s daycare centre.
The owners of the factories working in the building were subsequently under investigation, after reports that they had forced workers into the building on the day – despite the fact that cracks had appeared in the structure the day previously.
In the past, activists have called for Western consumers to boycott companies that use factories in Bangladesh. But such a reactionary move would prove devastating to the millions of Bangledeshi workers and their families whose survival depends on the income they currently earn from these factories. In Bangladesh, the garment industry accounts for 77% of the country’s exports. It creates millions of jobs, that would otherwise not exist. So what is the answer?
Activists argue that Australian consumers should not boycott products – but that we should demand better conditions for the workers who are creating the clothes that we wear everyday. We should be demanding that retailers take more responsibility.
After the devastating building collapse in April, activists started pushing for Australian retailers to sign onto a Bangladeshi health and safety accord – the Accord for Fire and Building Safety – that would mandate building inspections, allow for buildings to be audited, let workers refuse dangerous work, demand workers’ health and safety training, and instruct repairs to unsafe factories.
For the first month after the accident, no Australian retailers signed onto the accord. Many UK and American companies – such as Zara, Calvin Klein and Aldi – have already signed on to such agreements.
Before the 60 Minutes program went to air, the team approached Kmart CEO Guy Russo on Monday for a statement. On the Thursday of that week, Kmart officially declined to comment. And then on Friday, both Kmart and Target signed onto the accord.
But many other companies, including retail outlets like Cotton On have not.
In a statement released by Oxfam after the retail giants signed the accord, the Oxfam Australia Labour Rights Coordinator Daisy Gardener said:
… Australian companies sourcing clothing from Bangladesh need to show they care about the workers who produce their clothing by immediately signing the Accord.
Since 2005, 1800 people have lost their lives in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh.
These clothing companies have the power to help prevent these tragedies, and must exercise this power now before more lives are lost.
Ultimately, Australian companies can afford to make these reforms.
Ms Gardener says, “No brand is too big to listen to its customers… If enough consumers tell companies they care about the conditions under which their clothes are made, they will listen.”
It’s a tough one. And it would be easy to paint all Australian retailers as big, evil corporations – as the ‘bad guys’. However, consumers are complicit in the industry too.
We buy the clothes. We support the status quo.
The reality is that as consumers, many of us want to be able to buy cheap clothes. Jeans for $20. Blazers for $15. Practically disposable flats for $5.
Everybody loves a bargain.
But if Australians are prepared to pay just a few dollars more – and demand that our retailers start acting more ethically – the lives of millions of workers could be improved.
I for one, would love to keep buying embellished, sequined tops from chain stores. But I will only ever feel comfortable if I know these clothes are being produced in a way that doesn’t make me ashamed to wear them.
If you would like to call on retailers to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Safety accord, you can sign Oxfam’s petition here.