The Vancouver Olympics are days away. It’s a nice time to reflect on the conditions of work in the hundreds of factories around the world where Olympic branded apparel is manufactured. Here’s a great report called Clearing the Hurdles that considers the state of working conditions in the apparel industry.
One the eve of the Beijing Olympics, a coalition of NGOs and unions asked leading apparel producers what steps they were taking to ensure the conditions of work in their supplier factories satisfied a list of factors that the coalition asserted are ‘hurdles’ to decent labour conditions in the apparel industry. (Here is the letter that was sent to the brands). The result of the survey was just released in a fancy, cool website format. It is a very impressive piece of work. In fact, there is so much in this publication, that it will take me some time to read and reflect on for my own research in this field. The remarkable people at Toronto’s Maquila Solidarity Network were involved.
Start with a quick look at the short video that accompanies the report.
The report identified four key ‘hurdles’ that companies needed to address to improve working conditions in their supplier factories. It asked the companies (including Nike, Adidas, Puma, New Balance, and others) what steps they were taking to address these issues:
1.Develop a positive climate for freedom of association and collective bargaining;
2.Eliminate the use of precarious employment in sportswear supply chains;
3.Lessen both the frequency and negative impacts of factory closures;
4. Take steps to improve worker incomes, with the goal of reaching a living wage for all workers.
A colour-coded chart summarizing the companies’ responses to the various key criteria in the survey is found here. See what the companies said in response to the factors listed in the report. As I said, there is too much here to cover in a blog post. I will only refer to two issues here: ‘living wages‘ and ‘pricing‘.
Will the firms ensure workers are a paid a ‘living wage’? Only Pentland claimed the workers were paid a living wage (I don’t know if Pentland actually does ensure a living wage). The other companies said they will not commit to a living wage. The living wage is a measure that attempts to cost out a bundle of goods to estimate what a worker in a particular community needs to pay for the basics of life. Many companies challenge how the living wage is calculated and verified, but also reject it as a principle, as do many governments in developing countries, who see it as an attempt to destroy the comparative advantage in low wages that their workers enjoy.
Should workers be guaranteed a ‘living wage’?
Will you ensure prices are sufficient to pay a living wage? Now that’s an interesting one. Remember that companies like Nike don’t actually ’employ’ people to make their clothes or shoes (with some exceptions). They contract with other companies to make the clothes. The issue this question gets at is whether Nike (and the others) actually pay the suppliers enough money to enable the suppliers to pay their workers a decent amount and comply with labour laws, and still make a profit. If not, then the suppliers have no way of complying with labour laws: they either go out of business, or pay very low wages (benefits, etc) to make a small profit. The labour activists are now after information that would enable them to assess what role the major brand companies play in pressuring suppliers to keep labour conditions crappy.
Not surprisingly, the companies aren’t eager to give out this costing information. Nike, though, claims it might support training for unions on how to cost products! I’d love to go to a training session on supply chain costing put on by Nike for union organizers. Where do I sign up for that. [Caitlin, can I come?] Of course, companies refused vehemently to disclose the identify and location of their factories for decades too, but now many companies do give out this information (I’ve explained this development before). So, who knows.
What do you think about the idea of pressuring companies to disclose the tender prices for goods sourced from factories as a means of learning whether the amounts being paid for orders are actually driving down wages and labour conditions?
Check out the report. There’s lots of good information in it.