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Workers rights: Lives of garment workers

It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that not all countries enforce workers rights, and in some countries, employees are allowed to be treated extremely unfairly, not only when it comes to pay, but also working conditions, social benefits, and personal protection including physical, mental and sexual abuse. But what does that have to do with us?

Workers rights in the UK

Here in the UK, workers are entitled to certain employment rights, including:

  • getting the National Minimum Wage
  • protection against unlawful deductions from wages
  • the statutory minimum level of paid holiday
  • the statutory minimum length of rest breaks
  • to not work more than 48 hours on average per week or to opt out of this right if they choose
  • protection against unlawful discrimination
  • protection for ‘whistleblowing’ - reporting wrongdoing in the workplace
  • to not be treated less favourably if they work part-time


Workers rights in other countries

What might be a surprise to hear is that many highstreet clothing brands available to us in the UK are exploiting their workers by not paying them a living wage or protecting them from harm caused by the workplace. This issue was rife before Covid, but the pandemic has caused many brands to minimise their losses by shifting the financial burden as far down the supply chain as possible - meaning cutting orders and refusing to pay for those already in production, leaving garment workers without wages. Here are some of the facts:

  • Garment workers are often forced to work 14-16 hour days, 7 days a week, making 96 hour weeks normal.
  • Research shows that women, who make up the majority of garment workers, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, experiencing even greater inequalities in earnings, workload, occupational segregation, and distribution of unpaid care work.
  • 10% of the garment workforce suddenly found themselves unemployed at the start of the pandemic with many failing to receive any severance pay or even the wages already owed to them.
  • 168 million children in the world are forced to work, and because the fashion industry requires low-skilled work, child labour is very common.
  • Most garment factories don’t allow workers to form unions to defend their rights collectively, and in Bangladesh, only 10% of the 4,500 garment factories have registered unions.
  • There is proof that the garment industry generates poverty instead of eliminating it due to the significantly high number of workers who take out loans to pay for their basic living expenses.
  • This isn’t to mention the inhumane working conditions that garment workers often have to endure; no ventilation or air conditioning, unsafe factories, suffocating summer heat, no windows, regular fainting.


Minimum wage vs living wage

Living wage is calculated by area based on the average cost of living expenses such as rent, food, education, healthcare, transportation and savings. It is the calculation of the amount of money the average person would need to live a healthy life in their country/area. Minimum wage is what the government deems the minimum legal amount that can be paid to a worker, which is nearly always significantly less than living wage. The fact that only some fashion brands ensure their customers (you and me) that their workers are being paid minimum wage means that so many aren’t even doing that. Which makes you think, when you spent £5 on that top in the January sale, how much was the person who made it paid?

Here are some examples of minimum wage vs living wage in countries with high amounts of living workers, and remember most garment workers aren’t even being paid minimum wage.

Minimum wage: 8,000 taka/month (£67.40/month)
Living wage: 37,661 taka/month (£317.50/month)

Minimum wage: 741,279 riel/month (£130.65/month)
Living wage: 2,052,775 riel/month (£361.81/month)

Sri Lanka
Minimum wage: 10,000 lkr/month (£36.36/month)
Living wage: 75,601 lkr/month (£274.89/month)

Minimum wage: 12,000 PKR/month (£54.57)
Living wage: 37,886 PKR/month (£172.29)


How to find ethical brands

Although many of us may feel helpless in the fight to ensure workers are entitled to employee rights in other countries, there are many things you can do to help. One of the best ways to help is by researching the brands you buy from, making sure they are paying their workers a living wage and publishing information about their supply chain. And of course you can have the satisfaction of replying ‘Thanks, it’s ethically made’, when someone compliments you on your new top.

Spreading the word to your friends, coworkers and families will help those workers who are not being treated fairly, and will also increase support for those brands who do care about their workers. Websites such as Good On You allow you to search for brands to see how ethical they are, they also have their own app so you can search on the go. Plus, we would highly recommend reading up on the sources we used to write this blog. Websites such as Clean Clothes Campaign even publish country profiles on the fashion industry which you can browse by country and date.


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