Opinion: Good Clothes Fair Pay wants Irish consumers to influence legislation requiring fashion brands to ensure garment workers are paid properly

By Alacoque McAlpine, TU Dublin; Kellie Dalton and Maeve Galvin, Fashion Revolution

Wages are a long-standing issue in fashion supply chains. Statutory minimum wage levels are at less than 50% of what is necessary to secure a decent life in the largest garment producing countries. Consumers take low price tags as given and are shopping more every year. The industry is worth $3 trillion globally and worldwide apparel consumption is set to rise to 102 million tonnes annually by 2030, the equivalent of 500 billion t-shirts.

Fashion shareholders reap the rewards of this consumption, but the people who actually make the clothes we buy do not. It now takes just four days for a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime. According to Garment Worker Centre, approximately 85% of garment workers do not earn the minimum wage.

Piece rate payment terms have had significant influence on driving down wages and enabling cheaper price tags for consumers. This means garment workers get paid for every item of clothing they make rather than having a fixed minimum hourly wage. In Los Angeles, for example, this could work out as between two to six cents for every item, or a monthly take-home salary of about $300. As of January 2022, the Garment Worker Protection Act came into effect in California, banning piece rate payment and requiring garment workers be paid the minimum hourly wage.

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From NBC News, garment workers say they're paid 3 cent per item

But piece rate payments are still common across the industry globally. It is very much a global problem where women are disproportionately affected, as they make up 80% of the workforce.

Bad practice and poverty wages

An earlier Brainstorm piece outlined how the poor purchasing practices of global fashion brands, the most powerful actors in clothing supply chains, have made exploitative working conditions and wages endemic across the industry. To meet brand demands for low-cost production, factory owners often cut the most flexible cost; workers wages.

NGOs report that garment workers run out of money before the month's end, despite working 90 to 100 hour weeks. Many have to develop survival strategies such as taking out high-interest loans to pay for their children's school books and utility bills, as well as avoiding the expense of necessary medical treatment. Women garment workers can often only afford to eat half the calories needed to sustain ten hours of industrial work and frequently faint at work as a result.

A living wage has the potential to break this in-work poverty cycle as it factors in, on a country-by-country basis, costs for food, housing, transportation, health care and margin for unforeseen events, for example illness.

The campaign

The EU is the largest importer of clothes and textiles in the world, bringing in over €80 billion worth of product every year mainly from China, Bangladesh and Turkey. It has significant leverage to address the challenge of poverty wages and a coalition of NGOs, investors and living wage experts, including Fashion Revolution, Clean Clothes Campaign and Fairwear Foundation, want to make sure that it does.

The Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign harnesses the power of EU citizens to call on the European Commission to introduce a new law requiring fashion brands and retailers to ensure people working in supply chains are paid at least a living wage. To do this, the campaigners are using a European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) to enable citizens to call directly on the European Commission to propose legislation in an area of EU competence. The campaign must collect at least a million signatures from EU citizens across a 12-month period starting today. Ireland's target is 9,165 signatures.

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From Fashion Revolution, an introduction to the Good Clothes Fair Pay campaign

What will this legislation mean for fashion brands?

If successful, this new legislation will make fashion brands and retailers responsible for the wages of garment workers in their supply chains. They will no longer be able to dismiss wage issues as a problem for their suppliers to solve. Most importantly, it will require brands and retailers to identify risk groups that are particularly hard hit by low wages, such as women and migrant workers.

What will this mean for garment workers?

If garment workers across global supply chains earned living wages, it would lift entire families and communities out of poverty. It would also contribute to crucial economic and social development in line with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

Nasreen Sheikh, a survivor of modern-day slavery and now a powerful advocate for global human rights, says "people in garment factories are fed like animals and work like machines. In order to free them, we must provide a living wage as soon as possible".

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Dr Dee Duffy, lecturer in Retail Management at TUD and Director of Education at Junk Kouture, on the problems with fast fashion

What will this mean for consumers?

Good Clothes Fair Pay shifts consumer power from boycotting brands and buying less, buying better to influencing the law. Shoppers do not have to simply trust their favourite brands and retailers to live up to their values and a simple signature could mandate they legally have to. If carried out by enough citizens, this small yet potentially historic act could lift millions of working women all over the world out of the fashion poverty trap. All without a significant increase to prices paid at the checkout. A report by Oxfam found that paying living wages to garment workers would increase the final cost of a piece of clothing by just 1%, the equivalent of a 10 cent increase on a €10 t-shirt.

Good Clothes, Fair Pay also offers citizens a unique opportunity to extend the wave of feminist and anti-racist solidarity we have witnessed in the last few years to people in clothing supply chain communities, who are often overlooked in the name of 'affordable' fashion.

Here's what you can do

Good Clothes, Fair Pay needs one million signatures from EU citizens o push for legislation that could transform the lives of working women across the fashion industry globally.

(i) Sign the petition

(ii) If you're not an EU citizen, help us spread the word by sending to friends, and by sharing our posts on social media.

(iii) Follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter for updates

Alacoque McAlpine is a lecturer in sustainable supply chain management at the Faculty of Business at TU Dublin. Kellie Dalton is a sustainability strategist and responsible fashion advisor working with brands, retailers and in supply chains. Maeve Galvin is Global Campaigns and Policy Director at Fashion Revolution and manages the Good Clothes, Fair Pay Campaign.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ