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The human cost of cheap clothing

25 July 10 17:14
Young worker in a tailoring unit
By James Melik
Reporter, Business Daily, BBC World Service, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The garment industry as a whole uses developing countries to manufacture its products but, according to the British charity Action Aid, cheap fashion comes at a human price.

It says the UK retail company Asda - part of the US giant Walmart - is not paying a decent wage to the workers in south Asia who manufacture its George clothing range.

By a decent wage, they mean a living wage - one that covers the cost of food, clean water, healthcare, education, clothing, fuel and transport.

Asda's Dominic Burch says: "We are extremely focused on trying to improve standards in the factories we work with, but we recognise this is a very complex issue."

"There is a sense that Asda is turning a blind eye, or not wanting to do the right thing, which is absolutely nonsense," he asserts.

Long-term strategy

"If it was as straightforward as putting money into the supply chain then we could have solved this issue 20 or 30 years ago," he says.

If a living wage is the ultimate goal, the minimum wage set in Bangladesh by the government would need to double this year, next year and the year after, in order to reach the kind of level Action Aid is calling for.

"It is a laudable aim but we have to find a sustainable way of doing that," says Mr Burch.

"It would be easy for Asda to walk away from Bangladesh, but we have made a strategic decision to work with people in Bangladesh in the long term."

He says the retail price you pay for a garment being produced in a factory in the developing world is not the indicator of how conditions are in that factory.

"It is overly simplistic to suggest that because the item does not cost a lot of money in the supermarket, people are therefore not paid a lot of money at the front end," he says.

Brighter future

Like many other high street retailers, Asda joined the the Ethical Trading Initiative 10 year ago.

The alliance encourages retailers, brands and their suppliers to take responsibility for improving the working conditions of the people who make the products they sell.

The members make a commitment to ethical trade and adopt a code of labour practice that they expect all their suppliers to work towards.

Such codes address issues like wages, hours of work, health and safety and the right to join free trade unions.

Marks and Spencer has established 'Ethical Model' factories which focus on workers' rights, training for middle management and productivity training for industrial engineers and production line management.

"Without exception the factories have become more efficient and, as a result, workers' salaries have been increased," says Daniel Himsworth at Marks and Spencer.

"Wages at the factories have increased by at least 12% and in some cases over 50%," he says.

"Absenteeism is down by 85% and staff turnover is down by 65%," he adds.

Asda is running a similar initiative and workers in the factories involved have seen wage increases of 15% in a year.

"We are training managers and team leaders," says Asda's Dominic Burch, "and by allowing people to extend we empower them."

Exploiting people and brands

Despite the progress in some factories, there are still accusations and counter-accusations of less than savoury practices in the garment industry.

Two years ago the BBC highlighted the appalling conditions in a Dhaka factory making clothes for Zara.

The BBC alerted Inditex, the owner of Zara, and the company's director of corporate social responsibility flew to Bangladesh to investigate.

Although it transpired that no Zara clothes were being made at that particular factory when he arrived, he agreed it was a dangerous environment and using the clout of a huge multinational buyer, he got the factory moved to new premises.

His intervention led to major changes and the staff in that factory now work in a modern, clean and safe environment.

However, it is impossible to police everything.

Some unscrupulous factory managers sub-contract work, without the client's knowledge, to other establishments.

These units are often cramped, with workers sleeping in the aisles so they can take over the machines as soon as their shift begins and, quite often, they are young workers who might otherwise not be able to earn anything at all.

Companies are quick to act when discrepancies are pointed out to them.

Within 12 hours of the BBC telling Asda about a tailoring unit on the top floor of a shopping mall, packing shirts bearing the firm's George logo into plain cardboard boxes, Asda investigators in Dhaka visited the premises and interviewed workers.

They established that the shopping mall houses a series of small tailoring shops producing garments for the Bangladesh domestic market.

"As all of the machines are manual, it is not possible to produce garments for the export market," says Mr Burch.

"During the visit, the team did not see garments with the George label or that of any other global brand in the tailoring houses," he adds.

"However, the shops in the mall that sell the garments made in these tailoring units had garments with global labels such as Gap and H&M."

Labels of well-known global brands are often purchased wholesale and affixed to garments according to the wishes of local clients and without the knowledge of the international brand owners.

Asda also pointed out that the label shown on the shirts the BBC saw being packed is a discontinued George logo that has not been used in the UK for more than two years.

"That in itself calls into question whether this merchandise is a legitimate product destined for our stores," Mr Burch says.

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