Nine out of 10 companies supplying clothes to Australian consumers do not know where their cotton is sourced and most fail to pay overseas workers enough to meet their basic needs, an investigation into the fashion industry shows.
Next week marks the two-year anniversary since Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapse in which more than 1100 workers died, but a report card on the industry notorious for poverty-level wages has revealed many brands still exploit their workers.
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The 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.
Co-author Gershon Nimbalker said while there had been improvements at the final stages of production in the two years since the organisation’s first audit of the fashion industry, very little had been done to address working conditions earlier in the supply chain, where some of the worst abuses often occur.
“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.”
Rescue operation at site of Rana Plaza collapse. Photo: AFP
Researchers examined 59 apparel companies collectively supplying more than 200 clothing brands in Australia and graded them on their policies, transparency, supply chain traceability and worker rights. About 75 per cent of companies responded to a survey about their business practices, with the remaining businesses graded solely on publicly available information.
Australian companies 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.
The report said 91 per cent of companies did not know where all their cotton comes from and 75 per cent did not know the source of all their fabrics. Most companies do not carry out regular random inspections or have a system in place for workers to raise complaints. And while eight companies had taken steps to improve low wages for overseas workers only two proved they paid a full living wage.
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.
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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.
Ms Kitto said she had met women in India who had been coerced into working in spinning, weaving and dyeing mills and forced to labour under appalling conditions.
“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.”
Dismal conditions: wages for Bangladeshi garment workers are some of the lowest in the world. Photo: Ben Doherty
Two thirds of companies graded in the 2013 report have improved their practices and more than a dozen have now signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, pledging a safe work environment in the ready made garment industry. Kmart was singled out for improving supply chain traceability and Cotton-On was ranked the highest rated non-Fairtrade Australian retailer.
Twenty-three companies have boycotted cotton from one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, Uzbekistan, which has a history of forcing children as young as 10 to work in government-owned cotton fields. Coles, Lowes, Best & Less, Billabong and Quiksilver have not boycotted using Uzbekistan cotton. David Jones, which lifted its grade from an F to a C- over the past two years, signed the pledge this week.
Best & Less said it took its ethical responsibility in the supply chain seriously and worked only with complaint factories and suppliers. “We have a comprehensive Ethical Sourcing Code in place to uphold fair and safe working conditions, environmental protection and human rights obligations in all of our supplier locations,” the company said in a statement.