Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 December 2017


Garment Industry Workers

8:26 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

On 25 December, many Australians around the nation will come together to exchange gifts, love and delight, and the delicious tastes of the season. Australians love this time of the year and fully embrace the tradition of giving. Last year, Australians spent $8.8 billion on the tradition of giving gifts. Clothing, toys, accessories and shoes were distributed under sparkling trees and in plump stockings. Yet our choice of gifts has unintended consequences on our world's poor. What we choose to purchase can fuel poverty and inequality. The What she makes: power and poverty in the fashion industryreport, launched by Oxfam, with research conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, shines light on how Australian consumers are driving this industry.

Asia provides around 91 per cent of the garments sold in Australia, with China being the top sourcing destination, followed by Bangladesh, which provides just over nine per cent of all garments sold here. Other key source countries for the Australian market include Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and India. When we buy clothes manufactured in many overseas developing countries, a mere four per cent is spent on labour costs. In Bangladesh, this equates to a salary of A39c an hour. So, while many of these countries have experienced strong economic growth due to investment from big industries like the garment sector, the benefits have not been shared fairly with the people at the bottom of the fashion supply chains. The fact is that the women and men making our clothes are living in poverty.

The What she makes report reveals that the poorest 70 per cent of people in Asia have seen their income share fall. Meanwhile, the share held by the top 10 per cent has increased rapidly. This inequality is felt particularly by women. A job in the garments sector could be the first formal employment opportunity for many women in developing countries—an essential step towards financial independence and the start of a path out of poverty. In Asia, women earn, on average, 70 per cent to 90 per cent of what men earn. One reason for this is that women are disproportionately concentrated in the lowest paid roles and in informal work. This is also true in the garment industry, where men often hold higher paid jobs with more authority. The What She Makes report highlights many personal accounts of women who make our garments.

One such account is that of Anju, who lives in Bangladesh and makes clothes for the Specialty Fashion Group. She makes an average of 37c an hour. Anju left school early to find work and has to live apart from her two daughters because of her circumstances. She receives piece-rate pay, where workers are paid a fixed rate per piece they produce. The work she undertakes is detailed, requiring precise skills. However, the work is unscheduled. She's often sent home when there are no orders or is required to work overtime. If she doesn't reach the target set, she is not paid for the day's work. Financially, this is incredibly stressful for Anju. Her landlord is trying to evict her because she is unable to pay rent on time, and she has a debt at the grocery store. Anju's wish is simple: to use her pay to achieve a better future for her daughters. She says:

Everyone wants their children to have a bright future. If my daughters have a better education here, maybe they will have a good job, and they would have a brighter future.

Economically self-reliant women are engaged in their community, which builds a culturally rich society. The engagement of women is the cornerstone of building sustainable communities. When women are empowered, communities are empowered.

Another account is that of Forida, who lives in Bangladesh and makes clothes for Target Australia, H&M and other global brands. Forida makes 35c an hour making our clothes. She hopes for a living wage, saying:

If we were paid a little more money, then I could one day send my son to school; we could live happily, we could lead a better life.

Forida's living conditions are crowded and run-down. Her family lives in a compound with a further six families, with only one toilet to share. A nearby polluted pond attracts mosquitoes, which exposes her and her family to the risk of mosquito-borne viral diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Her family cannot afford better living conditions while she is paid so little.

But Oxfam argues that paying a living wage is possible. A living wage for garment workers provides the basics of living: food, water, education and accommodation free from overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Research undertaken by Deloitte Access Economics estimates that, even if the brands were to add the full price of paying living wages onto the price of a garment, prices would only increase by one per cent. If you were to ask Australians this Christmas whether they would be willing to pay one per cent more for the clothes that they buy from H&M, Target and any of the brand stores that we all go shopping in so that women like Anju and Forida could earn a living wage, I think Australians would agree to that, because Australians believe in a fair go. We are an egalitarian nation, yet we are denying our nearest neighbours, who make our clothes, that same fair go. I think it's time for governments and companies alike to even up the scales and ensure everyone earns a living wage.

Pay and conditions are one aspect of the abuse suffered by garment workers; another is production targets. Unrealistic production targets put enormous pressure on workers, who are often paid by the piece of work in unsafe conditions. Workers are either forced to work overtime to achieve targets or payment is deducted from their wages. Fatima, who makes clothes for Big W and H&M, makes 43c an hour making our clothes. The pressure of the targets takes a toll on her health. She recounts:

If we have to finish a certain amount of work that might take five hours, they tell us to do it within three hours. And then they really pressure us; we can't go to the toilet; we can't drink water. And it's because of the targets.

She has seen workers physically abused for not reaching targets and fears for her own safety.

Brands have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of their workers. Choosing to make garments in countries with a very low or non-existent minimum wage benefits garments companies' bottom line and fuels disadvantage and exploitation. As Australians, we must not turn a blind eye. We must recognise that this treatment of workers is appalling. However, we continue to purchase clothing manufactured by women working in these conditions.

That is why the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has been inquiring into a Modern Slavery Act for Australia to ensure that companies disclose if they have slavery or slavery-like practices in their supply chains. When the products we purchase are tainted by exploitation, we are all tainted; we are all contributing to that exploitation. So I call on Australians this Christmas to choose and purchase ethical goods.

Oxfam has worked tirelessly to educate and advocate for garment industry workers over numerous years. Their work, highlighting the conditions which led to the Rana Plaza collapse, was significant in raising awareness of this issue for Australian consumers.

Our consumption drives the industry, and our actions can create change for these workers. We have the purchase power to demand ethical treatment of garment workers. So this holiday season choose to spend your money on companies that treat their workers fairly, with the conditions and pay associated with this respect, and extend what this holiday season means to many Australians to those who manufacture our goods offshore on our behalf. Ensure that they can also delight in this season, by purchasing your gifts from manufacturers that treat their workers ethically.