The first thing that all the experts agreed upon was PAY. It's clear that the minimum wage that most workers are paid is not enough to provide comfortably for their needs. Generally speaking, wage structures are agreed upon by the factory owner and the brand for which they produce clothes. The worker has no say in it, with predicably poor results.
While this situation is depressingly familiar the world over, it drops into focus even more when given a little context or coverage. Say what you like about the Mail On Sunday coverage of the Fawcett Society t-shirt debacle, but at least it got the fact that Mauritian garment workers are paid well under a quid a day for their labours. The shocking thing is that this is fair treatment by factory standards: 62p for a shift is above the national minimum wage.
So how do workers get fair compensation for their skills and labour? By being included in the negotiation of pay structures. CO-OPERATION between the people on the shop floor, management, clients and government is vital to ensure that wages aren't screwed down to the point where they become unworkable. If there's no representation from workers at the table, they will by default become excluded, their basic needs undiscussed and unmet.
So how does that happen? Simple. Garment workers need to be provided with THE RIGHT TO UNIONISE. Collective bargaining allows a workforce to be treated more fairly, and provided with some of the benefits that we take for granted in the West. This has a positive knock-on effect on productivity: a happy, healthy, motivated workforce works harder and more effectively.
Some multinationals claim that their hands are tied, that local regulations forbid them from allowing unionisation in their factories. When you consider that some big-name brands have a larger revenue than the annual GDP of the countries in which they operate, then you start to see through that line. That's not to say that government don't have a part to play. Harpeet Kruar of the Business And Human Rights Resource Centre notes that, when Cambodian garment workers had a pay rise, landlords in Phnom Penn hiked rents, wiping out most of the gains. There should be legislation in place to ensure that sort of blatant exploitation doesn't happen.
The landscape of modern apparel production is a complex, shifting one. The supply chain for any one garment can run into thousands of miles and several countries. Labour negotiations are fraught with difficulty. But this complexity can be unravelled if all the parties involved work together to ensure that process becomes transparent, accountable and above all fair.
That includes the end point of the chain, of course: us. I'll leave the final word to Tyler Brulé, whose angry piece for the Financial Times just after Rana Plaza is still just as relevant today.
I’m curious as to why we get all concerned about the happiness of cows sweating it out in Australia, whether the fish on our plate was line-caught or the distance some vegetables might have travelled to get to market – yet we’re not particularly bothered about the thousands who work behind razor wire in China fusing patches of nylon together for our activewear, the toxic nature of the garments we buy armfuls of, or the despicable conditions in factories that millions have to call their workplace.