In the wake of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, there has been an increasing desire for Australian consumers to know more about how our clothes are produced and how the workers that make them are treated. This report examines 41 companies (128 brands) operating in Australia, and assesses what efforts they are undertaking to protect the workers in their supply chain from exploitation, forced labour and child labour. This research builds upon work previously carried out in the US focused ‘Apparel Industry Trends’ report, compiled by Free2Work.
Two decades ago it was standard practice for fashion brands to publicly deny any responsibility for workers in their supply chain. Years of worker and consumer activism, and most recently the tragic events in Bangladesh, have shifted the debate. A number of companies have moved to develop extensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that, if properly enacted, should lead to improved working conditions and positive change for workers.
The report grades companies across four categories of their CSR practices: Policies, Traceability & Transparency, Monitoring & Training, and Worker Rights. It is worth noting that though more than a third of companies received an A grade for their policies, without adequate enforcement mechanisms, the impact of these policies on workers’ livelihoods can be negligible, with only 2 companies (5%) reporting efforts to ensure that workers at multiple stages of the supply chain receive a living wage. We hold that it is important for companies to ensure they have supply chains that are highly transparent, and where workers are respected and afforded a voice to negotiate working conditions and speak out against grievances.
In compiling these grades, we have sought to engage brands with the research process. Where brands have not responded we have graded them based on publically available information on their CSR policies. It is possible that many of these brands are doing more than is represented by these grades and we look forward to working with them to understand their practices better.
Along with the presented grades, the report highlights a few significant labour rights issues faced in the various stages of production, such as the use of forced child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and ongoing worker exploitation in Bangladesh’s garment factories. In addition to comprehensive CSR policies and monitoring, we encourage brands to support issue specific initiatives like the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety or the Responsible Sourcing Network’s pledge to not use Uzbekistani cotton. These initiatives represent an essential step toward protecting workers.
We also want to encourage companies to begin reporting the impact of their CSR policies, and in particular the wage gains of their workers – one of the most dependable measures of improved worker well-being.
We know that the investment, job opportunities and skills that fashion retailers bring to countries, particularly developing countries, can be hugely beneficial for these countries and their citizens. However, we also know that without adequate safeguards, workers can be exploited or even enslaved, and as we have seen recently, lives can be lost.
This report aims to empower consumers to purchase ethically while encouraging companies to ensure that the workers that produce the products they sell are protected and not harmed, that they are rewarded, not exploited and that they work free from the tyranny of modern slavery.