What Fairtrade Isn’t: The Garment Industry in the Global South

Learning about Fairtrade starts with understanding what it seeks to change – that is, the features of the global economic landscape that leave citizens of the Global South in poverty while rich nations benefit from the products of their labour. The garment industry employs many throughout the world and is notorious for low wages and poor working conditions. 

Garment making is a labour-intensive industry where collective bargaining is rare. In the top 20 textile producing economies from low and middle income nations, already low national minimum wages are subject to rampant non-compliance. 

This first graph shows monthly salaries for garment workers in top Asian textile economies. For perspective, try framing these rates in terms of your own income or cost of living:

This next graph shows the levels of non-compliance with minimum wages for garment workers by country and differences for women and men. Compliance estimates also include monthly wages attained through overtime, so the following are conservative figures: (from 2015 ILO policy note)

This final graphic shows the extent of wage theft, and the scale of textile workers receiving below 80% of minimum wage rates: (2015 ILO policy note)

These stats confirm what has become axiomatic knowledge for those in rich countries: due to outsourcing, multinational corporate power, global trade standards, and lax minimum wage laws, our food, clothes, electronics, furniture, and office supplies are often made by those who cannot afford these items themselves. 

H&M and The Gap

Following the collapse of a chronically unsafe commercial building in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed 1100 workers, many of the global brands whose products had been made there pledged to improve their practices. Six years later it is clear this has not happened. 

H&M and the Gap are among the the largest clothing brands in the world, relying on workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka to make its products. Yet their workforce, primarily women, often face low wages, unpaid overtime, extreme deadlines, harassment from employers, and sexual abuse from employers. Workers making clothes for these chains in India have also been met with violence, threats, and wage theft for trying to unionize. Thousands of Bangladeshi workers were fired following a mass protest of 50,000 workers demanding better pay and unionization. 

There are alternatives to supporting these major brands. Fairtrade clothing can be found through sites like Etik & Co. And if these sites don’t have what you’re looking for, check out a local thrift store rather than supporting large retailers notorious for paltry pay and unsafe working conditions.

Thank you for helping make Fairtrade possible!

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