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Setting livable wages in the third world

Organized labor along with Human Rights groups expose and take on sweatshops operated by H&M and the Gap

Kris LaGrange's picture
Jun 23, 2016

Running a large US retail company brings with it a lot of responsibility. As companies grow, so does its workforce. Sadly many retailers value profits over people and find it cheaper to outsource the  supply chain to the third world like Mexico, Vietnam, and Bangladesh to name a few. In some cases, these outsourced factories benefit the working poor of these impoverished countries but the result appalling sweatshop working conditions that employ children to make your favorite clothes or products. Stop reading this and take off your shirt or pants and read the label; chances are a child made what you are wearing right now.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch visited some Cambodian garment factories used by H&M and the Gap. Life in these factories is repugnant, the classic definition of a sweatshop. The clothing factories where H&M hoodies are made are loud and hot and workers routinely fall to the floor in mass fainting episodes. There is little to no safety regulations and workers are deemed replaceable.

H&M has outsourced the making of their clothes too dangerous third world sweatshops. In 2010, a factory they used in Bangladesh burned down, killing 21 workers. According to reports, the fire safety equipment in the building was deemed useless. As UCOMM Blog reported last year, charges were finally filed against the people responsible for this tragedy. A few months before the incident, an H&M audit had given the factory an “all clear” status.

The Asia FloorWage Alliance is a global coalition of trade unions and worker and human rights organizations that is actively trying to change this. They have proposed a minimum wage for garment workers across Asia. The minimum wage that they are trying to enact is based off of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) minimum wage recommendation for the countries with the lowest wages in Asia.  The goal for this wage is to provide enough to live on in each country and to ensure that the minimum wage be enough to provide for the employees’ entire family.

To calculate the wage, the Asia FloorWage Alliance uses the PPP or Purchasing Power Parity of the country. The PPP is an imaginary currency built on the consumption of goods and services. The currency allows them to compare the standard of living between countries, regardless of the national currency. This allows the alliance to establish minimum wages in countries so that they are not competing in a race to the bottom to get new business. This race to the bottom has not only sent factories from the US to Vietnam, but also from China to Cambodia, Hong Kong to Bangladesh, and so on.

On average, a third world garment worker only gets about 0.5-3% of the cost of the actual product. This means that on a $25 H&M hoodie, the most the worker will get paid is 50 cents. According to the Asia FloorWage Alliance, for a child in Bangladesh named Nupur, these low wages meant that she dropped out of 5th grade and became the breadwinner in her family.  For Ratna, a factory worker in India, she was forced to work in the factory while she was in labor and ended up losing the baby after she had it on the footpath to the factory. Disgusting.

In the United States, the Asia FloorWage Alliance campaign is working with labor organizations like Jobs with Justice, the National Guest Worker Alliance and Students against Sweatshops to pressure businesses and governments to support better wages and higher safety standards in their third world factories. As we found out after the Rana Plaza tragedy, H&M is not the only American company profiting off of conditions that have not been acceptable in the US in over 100 years. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka have business interests in the same factories, as UCOMM Blog has previously reported.  As you consider your apparel choices for the summer, check out Labor 411 for some companies that make their clothes here in the USA or simply do the right thing and boycott companies who kill babies on Indian factory floors.

Alexis Barrau contributed to this story.

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