In 2005, activists covertly infiltrated Australia’s largest fashion buying fair as bogus “EzyWorker” representatives to offer companies fantastically low labour conditions (lax health and safety - and no unions) and the chance to undercut even the lowest overseas rates.
It seems there were companies at the fair that welcomed the idea of even cheaper labour.
As one undercover activist later lamented: “They [fashion industry buyers] liked the idea of it … some of the most shocking things were when I said 'your clothes are being manufactured in China and it's actually quite a high rate - 15c an hour’ - they agreed with me ... they seemed to swallow the fact that we said people could work for 18 hours straight … everyone seemed to think that was just fine ... everyone was really welcoming of the idea of a cheaper workforce ...”
Conditions of employment in the fashion industry both in Australia and overseas are notoriously poor. For example, a new report by the UK based non-government organisation War on Want found that in Bangladesh a living wage (covering costs of food, rent and medicines) is $55.70 a month. But Bangladeshi textile workers are paid as little as $20 a month. These employees typically work 12 to 16-hour days, six days-a-week.
In Australia we have a unique system in place which independently accredits fashion houses to ensure that Australian workers receive their legal entitlements, such as an award wage, superannuation and WorkCover. The Homeworker’s Code of Practice and its “No Sweat Shop” label, is supported by 31 companies around Australia including well known names such as Bardot, Yakka and Collette Dinnigan.
In spite of this, in our own backyard, conservatively about 40 per cent of people employed in the Australian textile, clothing and footwear industry are homeworkers working in substandard conditions, sewing in their homes and garages. Many inquiries and studies have illustrated the exploitation of homeworkers in Australia. In 2005, Senators from across the political spectrum were moved by the accounts of homeworkers at the inquiry on WorkChoices, such as the following, “the outworkers I know generally get $4 an hour and even $3 an hour … we are supposed to be employees now, but we are not treated that way”.
FairWear highlights experiences such as these, recounted by homeworkers:
“I begin work at 8.30am each day and I stop working at around 12.30am [after midnight … and] my life is quite normal [for a homeworker].”
Children can be involved: “After school I go down to the garage to help my parents [sew] until dinner time … we continue our work till about 9pm. I juggle schoolwork while I do sewing. … Sometimes I have to skip school because I can’t get up.”
The high prices paid at the fashion counter contrasts with the reality for a homeworker: “I am sewing skirts for a high fashion label. I receive $6 per skirt and I take more than one hour to complete each garment. I am pretty fast, so other women take longer … the retail price is $230.”
There has been bi-partisan support for the maintenance of protections for Australian homeworkers.
The FairWear Eye on Fashion has set up the inaugural 2007 Sweat Shop Award. This award will be given to an Australian company that has excelled in avoiding its responsibility in the manufacturing of their label and has rejected transparency and accountability in their contracting practices.
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