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Critical fashion workers’ rights issues

Ruth Strange scans the horizon for the latest concerns for people working in clothing supply chains.

The Bangladesh Accord 

The Bangladesh Accord was set up in response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, which killed over 1,000 garment workers.

The Accord is an independent agreement between brands and trade unions to make factories in Bangladesh safe. It has been unusually successful at improving safety because it is legally binding for the brands that sign up.

The thirteen brands which have signed up are listed in our Initiatives Table (see below).

The gains for workers have been dramatic, with deaths in Bangladesh’s garment sector falling from about 71 a year to 17 in the five years since the Accord was introduced. More than 90% of the safety hazards originally identified by Accord inspectors have been dealt with, and more than 2.5 million garment workers are now working in much safer factories.

Image: bangladeshi garment worker holding sign that reads i feel safe and secure in the factory due to accord work
Deaths in Bangladesh’s garment sector falling from about 71 a year to 17 in the five years since the Accord was introduced.
Image credit: Kristof Vadino

However, some factory owners are eager to see the back of the international inspectors, arguing that they are being more heavily scrutinised than their low-cost competitors in China, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. After one owner had Accord approval removed, he sued the Accord, and the Bangladesh High Court issued a restraining order on the Accord’s operations.

International pressure has helped keep the Accord going so far and, in May 2019, a Memorandum of Understanding was agreed. This extended the Accord for another year before its work is supposedly handed over to a new monitoring safety compliance system called the RMG Sustainability Council.

There are serious concerns, however, about the new system.

Employers are being added as a new stakeholder, and NGO watchdogs are being excluded. It may also no longer be legally binding. And while it was previously agreed that a transition would only happen once a new body met agreed standards, there is now a transition date set regardless of readiness.

The Clean Clothes Campaign reported, in April 2019, that in the previous two months “at least 95 people have died in preventable fires in buildings that were within the monitoring purview of the government of Bangladesh.”

The International Labour Rights Forum believes that “the Accord brands retain sufficient leverage over their Bangladeshi suppliers to secure a decent outcome for the workers who sew their clothes” and calls on them to exert this power over the coming months.

However, brands are not helping matters by squeezing prices. According to a 2018 report from the Center for Global Workers’ Rights:

  • Profit margins for supplier factories have decreased by 13% between 2011 and 2016
  • Real wages have dropped by 6.47% since the wage increase of December 2013, and l violations of workers’ rights to form unions, bargain, and strike increased by 11.96% between 2012 and 2015.

The reduced lead times demanded by fast fashion have also increased forced overtime and work intensity, and workers protesting for higher wages have seen the worst repression in a decade.

#Garmentmetoo campaign 

Image: hashtag garment me too campaign

In May 2019, a campaign was launched by Global Labor Justice (GLJ) and Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), demanding an end to gender-based violence in global garment supply chains.

A year before, GLJ and AFWA were part of a wider coalition which released factory level research reports documenting gender-based violence in the Asian garment supply chains of H&M, GAP and Walmart. They asked for immediate action from these companies, and a week later, H&M and Gap publicly declared support for a binding ILO (International Labour Organisation) Convention on workplace violence including gender-based violence in garment supply chains. 

Of course, violence is not restricted to women, or the garment supply chain, but women are concentrated in shortterm and low-wage positions in the sector, and are at daily risk of violence and harassment.

The rise of fast fashion and its accelerated and unpredictable production cycles has made the situation worse. Downward pressure on prices and irregular repeat orders push suppliers to employ a more flexible, low-wage work force, and managers drive workers ever harder.

As Bobbie Santa Maria of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre points out:

“Global brands are quick to use female empowerment when marketing their products. But when they exert relentless pressure to get more products for less money, it’s women workers who pay the price.”

One woman employed in an H&M supplier factory in Bangalore, India, testified that:

“On September 27, 2017, at 12:30 pm, my batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling “you are not meeting your target production.”

He pulled me out of the chair and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again. He kicked me.”

The supervisor was told to apologise, but the woman was also warned not to mention this further

In June 2019, it was reported that women workers were at the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) centennial conference in Geneva, inputting into the final stages of a strong convention to end gender-based violence in the world of work.

image: female garment worker no living wages
Most high street fashion brands have the commitment to pay a living wage written into their ethical codes. But little is being done to deliver this into the pay packets of workers who desperately need it.

No living wages

Labour Behind the Label has found that a shocking 31 out of 32 global leaders of the clothing industry are unable to provide proof of a living wage being paid to any of their workers. For the one that could, Gucci, it was only to workers in Italy, and only some of them.

The report is particularly critical of those companies who talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk, for example, Inditex, ASOS, Arcadia and GAP.


“Inditex’s claim that 3,532 factories are already paying a living wage is interesting but they were not able to back this assertion up with any living wage benchmarks (in fact they say they have none), and did not supply the methodology behind this figure despite repeated requests for clarification. To us, it is unclear how they can measure a living wage without having figures to define the term.”


“ASOS are signalling that they are committed to ethical trade, with directors making public statements, and reports showing ethical commitments seem to have an impact at all levels of the business. Their work with IndustriALL on trainings and communication methods with workers around the right to freedom of association in some countries seems useful. But their work on living wage doesn’t go far enough. The ACT initiative will only do so much to incrementally increase wages in a handful of countries and has no time frame or measurable benchmarks for showing if negotiations successfully achieve a wage for workers that is enough to support a family.”


“Arcadia have fallen back on old excuses saying the lack of a single agreed living wage benchmark is why they can’t deliver on their commitment to ensure wages are enough to meet basic needs. As studies have shown time and time again, minimum wages are far from enough to live on in the majority of Arcadia’s sourcing countries, so simply saying the ILO conventions require minimum wages are paid is a poor response.”


“Given that GAP have had a commitment to ensure wages are enough to meet workers basic needs in their policies for over 15 years, it is shocking that they have failed to make any progress whatsoever towards its payment.

GAP monitor if minimum wages are paid and seem to not acknowledge the difference between this and a wage that is enough to live on and support a family.

As a first step GAP should engage and publicly report on the gaps between wages paid and living wage levels, then announce a plan to address this.”

Fast fashion causes backsliding in workers' rights

All the improvements to workers’ rights and environmental impacts that have been fought for over the years are now being threatened by the sheer volume and speed at which clothes are being made, sold, and then thrown away. The number of times a garment is worn, for example, has decreased by 36% in the past 15 years.

Among European clothing companies, the average number of clothing collections more than doubled between 2000-2011, from two to about five a year. Clothes have also become cheaper. From 1995-2014, the price of clothing in many countries rose much slower than other consumer goods. In the UK, the cost of clothes actually fell over 50%.

The Pulse of the Fashion Industry report is an annual assessment of sustainability progress, published by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).

Its 2019 update found that “the pace of sustainability progress in the fashion industry has slowed by a third in the past year”

Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives

With so many entrenched issues, the clothing industry probably wins the prize for having more problem-solving collective initiatives than any other sector. Because of this, we have compiled the Initiatives Table below to help show who has signed up to what. We explain some of these initiatives below and others are explained elsewhere on our website as indicated by the links that we've put in some column titles.

Some of these initiatives, such as the BCI, have come in for criticism as being ‘weak’ or even greenwash by civil society groups (see our guide to sustainable fabrics). Others are clearly civil-society driven (e.g. the Greenpeace toxics campaign). We have not, however, included any initiatives in this list which we think are a complete waste of space.

Scoring well in this table is a likely indicator that the company is at least directing resources into understanding the problems it is part of.

Action Collaboration Transformation

ACT aims to get unions and suppliers to negotiate wages on a national basis, and brands to promise to include this negotiated number as a ring-fenced cost in their purchasing practices.

Campaign group Labour Behind the Label’s concern is that negotiations haven’t yet had any outcome. 

Moreover, “it does not require brands, in a way that is legally binding and enforceable, to significantly increase the prices they pay to suppliers. It fails to address the problem that wage increases must be regional to avoid production relocation. Further, the programme has not adopted a living wage benchmark definition and says that any wage negotiated is a living wage – a point of disagreement.” (see page 23)

Sustainable Apparel Coalition

Members are mostly brands, manufacturers and industry associations, but also academia and NGOs. The SAC created the HIGG Index, a set of tools for companies to self-assess and measure environmental and social sustainability throughout their supply chains. It has set an objective of achieving ‘full transparency’ of HIGG results by 2020; currently, most are not public.

Better Work

Better Work was started by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to improve worker-management cooperation, working conditions and social dialogue. Its programmes include assessments, training, advocacy, and research that change policies, attitudes and behaviour.

Ethical Trading Initiative 

ETI is an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that work together to tackle workers’ rights issues. It helps companies to implement its Base Code of labour practice, which is based on the standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Responsible Sourcing Network

RSN is a project of USA organisation As You Sow and asks brands to avoid using cotton picked by forced labour by signing up to both its Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan ‘Cotton Pledge’.


Who's in what multi-stakeholder initiative?

Brand Better Work Member of Ethical Trading Initiative Member of Better Cotton Initiative RSN Cotton Pledge Turkmenistan RSN Cotton Pledge
ACT (Action on Living Wages) Sustainable Apparel Coalition WRAP Textiles 2030 ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Total
H&M Group Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes   Yes 8
Primark Yes Yes   Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 8
ASOS Group Yes Yes Yes     Yes Yes Yes Yes 7
Marks & Spencer Yes Yes Yes   Yes   Yes Yes Yes 7
Inditex Group Yes Yes Yes   Yes Yes Yes   Yes 7
Next   Yes Yes     Yes Yes Yes Yes 6
Gap Yes   Yes Yes Yes   Yes   Yes 6
New Look   Yes Yes     Yes Yes Yes   5
Uniqlo (Fast Retailing) Yes   Yes   Yes   Yes   Yes 5
Amazon     Yes Yes Yes   Yes     4
Patagonia Yes       Yes   Yes     3
Boohoo Group     Yes       Yes Yes   3
Missguided   Yes           Yes   2
White Stuff   Yes               1
I Saw it First                   0
In The Style                   0
Nobody's Child                   0
Quiz                   0
Shein                   0
TK Maxx                   0
Reformation                   0

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