From Asia to America, sweatshops still persist in the fashion industry.
Their existence was first reported in the media in the early 1990s by American writer and activist Jeff Ballinger who wrote about Nike-producing factories in Indonesia that failed to pay minimum wage and harassed its workers.
What followed was a public shaming of the world’s leading shoe and sports apparel manufacturer. As the sales were hurt, Nike was forced to clean up its act.
Thirty years later, Ballinger continues to campaign for labor rights through his consumer information NGO, Press for Change. He calls a spade a spade and tells us about the continued worker exploitation in the industry, the impact of Covid-19, and the way forward.
1) Thank you for talking to us Jeff. You have played an active role in the fight to eliminate sweatshop practices in the fashion industry since the 90s. From then to now, have things changed for the better for the garment workers?
I wish I could say all the campaigning and activism has had an impact. Unfortunately, things are worse in many cases. Factories in several countries bring in foreign workers to work on the shop floor whose rights aren’t defended by the local government. This leaves more opportunity for cheating and exploitation.
Meanwhile, for over 40 years, brands are still pushing the outsourcing paradigm. They put four or five big manufacturers in competition for an order of 8000 pairs of blue jeans or 10000 pairs of one model of a sneaker to get the lowest price. And then if brands ask for workers to be given overtime wages or time-off on Saturday afternoons, the manufacturers don’t want to hear any of it. They tell brands you have got your low price and now let us make the product for you. Any worker related concerns are then left ignored.
2)Adding fuel to the fire, do you think Covid-19 has left the garment workers much worse off than before?
Terribly so. I have been looking at numbers and over four and a half million garment workers lost their jobs due to the pandemic. We all know how reputed established businesses cancelled their orders with suppliers, refusing to pay. Even activist-led campaigns like PayUp(a social media campaign demanding that brands pay factories for in-production and completed orders) have only managed to secure monies for bigger factories that work for the top brands. The smaller producers and contract shops, that makeup 80% of the manufacturing base, have been severely impacted. I’ve seen estimates that suggest lost wages have amounted to $6 billion.
3) Such unfortunate behaviour will have dire consequences for garment workers who had slipped on the priority list even before the pandemic as all leading companies seem focussed on environment-linked sustainability efforts. Your views?
That is the sad reality, but I have always made a connection with climate and worker exploitation. If you don’t pay workers enough, they are going to make bad lifestyle choices which will adversely impact the environment. What I mean here is that these young women send whatever money they can back to their parents in rural areas (mostly). It may be a sufficient amount to keep a younger sibling in school - out of the informal sector workforce - but not enough to pay for less-polluting fuel for cooking and heating.
My long-standing view is for a brand to be really considered sustainable, it must pay a living wage (minimum income for a worker to meet basic needs). When I arrived in Indonesia in 1988, the government readily admitted that the country's minimum wage was only 67% of "minimum physical needs" for a single adult.
4) But we haven’t seen any major company step forward and actively support the cause of workers in the supply chain. Moving forward, is there scope for hope?
A number of small garment brands like Etiko and Alta Gracia that are driven by transparency, openly talk about their factory workers who are well looked after. Such companies confess that while their business model doesn’t make them rich overnight but still generates a fair profit. Those startups are trying to challenge the existing exploitative low-price model.
But the issue is they lack scale. Maybe a bigger organisation like Oxfam (a global network of 20 NGOs focussed on poverty alleviation) can act as an umbrella marketplace for say 80 better brands to promote and monitor them. Monitoring is key to ensure that customers are not being served with empty promises.
Yet, on a pessimistic yet realistic note, the majority of the industry will remain the same where the big companies will offer cheap goods and remain unbeatable. And I say that because 30-35 years of work has shown that despite talking to workers and documenting their abuses, we, the campaigners, have not been able to stop their exploitation.
However, I do acknowledge what your team at Flourish is trying to achieve. Because when it comes to artisans and their products, the model exists in some American cities like Boston and the model works. Even if at a small scale, if one can reasonably assure the customer about the origins of the artisanal product and that their purchase would compensate and benefit the original maker, there is potential to grow.