A damning report on Australia’s fashion industry has just been released revealing that nine out of 10 companies supplying clothes to Australian consumers do not know where their cotton is sourced from, and most fail to pay overseas workers enough to meet their basic needs.
Next week marks the two-year anniversary since Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapse in which more than 1100 workers died, yet this recent report card on the industry have revealed that many still continue to exploit their workers and provide them with poverty-level wages.
The second annual Australian Fashion Report, to be released on Friday by Baptist World Aid, points to the increased risk of child and forced labour in the garment industry because most local companies are unable to trace or fail to monitor their supply chains.
The report evaluated 59 clothing companies and graded them on the ethics of their supply chain from the sourcing of raw materials, predominately cotton harvesting, through to final manufacturing.
Lead researcher on the audit and advocacy manager from Baptist World Aid, Gershon Nimbalker, said Australian brands such as Lowes and Best & Less were named among the worst performers, receiving an F and a D- respectively. The Just Group, which includes Just Jeans, Peter Alexander, Portmans and Dotti, received an overall D rank but an F for worker rights. All three companies did not respond to the questionnaire.
“For these companies, we could see no information about what they were doing in respect to ensuring fair conditions for overseas workers and there was a real lack of transparency,” he said.
“We’ve tried to engage Just Group, for example, for a really long time and we have found them to be one of the hardest companies to get answers from about their supply chain process.”
Nimbalker said all of the companies were assessed based on publicly available information, such as ethics and corporate responsibility statements, and then were contacted multiple times to expand on those policies and answer a set of 61 questions about their policies and practices at each level of their supply chains.
“Most of us are at risk of being connected to slavery in the cotton fields because companies who we’re buying from haven’t traced their cotton to make sure that there is no forced labour and child labour,” he said. “We don’t want to see another Rana Plaza equivalent deeper in the supply chain before fashion companies start taking action.”
According to the report, the production cost of a T-shirt in Bangladesh would increase from about 50c to 80c if workers were paid a living wage. The minimum wage in Bangladesh is currently US$68 ($88) a month.
Carolyn Kitto, spokeswoman for anti-slavery group Stop the Traffik, said the cost of paying workers enough to live on would make little difference to the end cost to Australian consumers because they were being paid so little.
“I’ve seen photos of rooms that would be about the size of my bedroom where 50 girls have lived,” she said. “They don’t have any safety equipment so they inhale and ingest cotton fibre. Their food is sometimes laced with hormones to stop them menstruating because they’re regarded as less productive when they’re menstruating.”
In India, recruiters targeted young girls in particular, often promising them education, accommodation and fair pay, only to force them into harsh child labour and subject them to sexual abuse, the report said, while in Uzbekistan, the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton, forces up to one million people to work in the cotton fields every year, including children as young as 10.
The report also revealed the Australian companies who have drastically improved their standards since last year’s audit. These brands included Kmart and Cotton On, both of whom have significantly improved their traceability of suppliers, while Country Road and the Sussan Group had improved worker wages overseas.
Fashion company report card:
A+ Etiko, Audrey Blue
A Fruit of the Loom, Hanesbrands Inc (Bali Bras, Barely There), Liminal Apparel, Rrepp
A- 3 Fish, Cotton On (Cotton On, Factorie, Rubi), H&M, Inditex (Zara), Patagonia
B+ Adidas, Country Road Group (Country Road, Mimco, Witchery), Cue Clothing Co (Cue, Veronika Maine), Levi Strauss & Co (Levi’s, Dockers), Athletica (Lululemon), Timberland
B Gap Inc (Gap, Athleta, Republic) Jeanswest, Kathmandu, Kmart, Lacoste, Nike (Nike, Converse, Hurley), Pacific Brands (Bonds, Berlei, Holeproof, Jockey), Puma, Sussan Group (Sussan, Sportsgirl), Uniqlo, VF Corporation (Lee, Nautica, North Face, Vans)
B- Coles (Mix Apparel), Woolworths (Big W, Peter Morrissey, Mambo), New Balance, Simon de Winter, Target Australia (Target, Free Fusion, Lily Loves)
C+ Forever New
C Abercrombie & Fitch*, Billabong (Billabong, Element, Von Zipper), Oroton Group (Oroton, Brooks Brothers), Specialty Fashion Group (Katies, Millers, Rivers)
C- David Jones (David Jones, Agenda, Alta Linea), Myer (Basque, Blaq, Sass & Bide), Retail Apparel Group (Tarocash, Yd)
D+ Fusion Retail Brands (Colorado, Diana Ferrari, Mathers, Williams), Quiksilver (Quiksilver, Roxy, DC)
D Just Group* (Just Jeans, Jay Jays, Dotti, Jacqui E, Portmans), Pretty Girl Fashion Group* (Rockmans, Table Eight)
D- Apparel Group (JAG, Saba, Sportscraft), Best & Less*, Gazal* (Bisley, Gazal Midford), Glassons*, PlayCorp (AFL, NRL), R.M. Williams*, Skechers USA*, Webster Holdings* (David Lawrence, Jigsaw, Marcs)
F Ally Fashion* (Ally), Fast Future Brands* (Valley Girl, Mirrou), Industrie*, Lowes* (Beare & Ley, Lowes), The PAS Group Ltd*(Marco Polo, Yvonne Black, Equus), Voyager Distributing Co* (Anthea Crawford, Jump, Kachel)
*Did not take part in the questionnaire (most companies that received an F grade had limited or no publicly available information about their supply chains and did not engage with Baptist World Aid for the study)
Take Action Now to Help End Exploitation of Fashion Workers
Stop The Traffik
DID YOU KNOW…THAT A YOUNG GIRL OF 14 MAY HAVE BEEN TRAFFICKED TO MAKE THE COTTON T-SHIRT YOU ARE WEARING?
It is a little known fact that over 200,000 young women and girls are trafficked to work in the cotton industry in the Tamil Nadu region of India.
Female workers, mainly aged 14 to 23 years old, are recruited with false promises of a good job and a lumpsum payment under the guise of an ‘apprenticeship’ scheme called Sumangali. Once recruited, they are essentially trapped within a factory for up to five years.
The workers have limited freedom. They have to sleep in accommodation in a hostel within the factory walls or guarded by the male factory employees with only limited contact with their families or the outside world. They are forced to work often up to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week or more without the compensation they have been promised.
The cotton is spun, dyed and woven in these factories to be sold to consumer markets all over the world. It is likely to be found in most of our favourite shops and labels. It is likely to be in cotton garments in our wardrobes and drawers.
Help make fashion Traffik Free in Australia by visiting the Stop The Traffik website where you can take action by contacting an Australian retailer or fashion label, ordering and distributing postcards at your workplace and local businesses, and buying traffik-free.