To respect human rights, fashion needs business, unions and governments

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

The living wage is central to human rights in business, but only a sector-wide approach can achieve one in the apparel industry.

Originally published in Guardian Sustainable Business.

Last week the world remembered those who died in the world wars of the last century. In 1919, as men put down their weapons and went back to work or unemployment across Europe, the ILO wrote “Peace and harmony in the world require a living wage”.

A century on and labour markets have transformed through technological advances and the forces of globalisation. None more so than the apparel industry which recently held a workshop in London on the living wage organised byLabour Behind the Label.

Still, the struggle to achieve a living wage continues, from mass worker protests in south-east Asia to activists attending Tesco shareholder meetings in the UK.

The living wage is so central to human rights in business precisely because it is a tool of immense power to achieving so many human rights. Firstly, a living wage ends immiseration – with all the loss of dignity and freedom that accompanies it. It allows wage-earners to put three nutritious meals on the table each day for their families, get kids to school, and receive basic health care when they or their family fall sick. A living wage also allows workers to participate in the social and cultural life of their society.

Currently there is an exciting surge of action around the living wage in the garment industry. It’s a result of many factors including factory fires and collapses, and labour unrest from Bangladesh to Cambodia. On the company side, it is partly attributable to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted with support from business in 2011. 

The Guiding Principles state that businesses now have an explicit responsibility to respect human rights throughout their supply chain and should “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts”. This perfectly captures the responsibility of clothing brands after the Rana Plaza factory collapse that took the lives of 1,129 workers in 2013.

 

The Guiding Principles demand due diligence in supply chains to prevent abuse of rights. Here, H&M’s living wage commitments demonstrate it sees this as part of due diligence while Adidas’s latest complaint mechanism is also a positive step towards offering effective remedy when abuses occur.

The causes of insecure jobs and low wages are often described as too multiple and complex – an excuse to leave them in the ‘too-difficult-box’. But there are three core drivers.

The unfair share of risk and value in the supply chain, is one. When companies seek to maximise short term profit alone, risks get pushed down and value gets pulled out from the weakest in supply chains – women workers and their families.

It’s also the absence of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. If workers are atomised they can play no role in the achievement of a living wage. Of course factory owners will complain, and unions, like the rest of us, are not perfect. But suppliers get the unions they deserve and if you treat worker organisations with distrust and disdain, you’ll get the same back. The July 2014 global framework agreement between IndustriALL and Inditex shows what can be done.

The third driver is states not fulfilling their duty to protect human rights. Too often the minimum wage is set at levels that represent the interests of national elites – too many legislators in Bangladesh and Cambodia are factory owners.

These are not healthy features of a 21st century garment industry. Fortunately some influential clothing brands are beginning to model systemic innovations in their supply chain, often amidst a jungle of obstacles in their own companies (from buyers’ incentives, to the absurd exigencies of ‘fast fashion’).

The statement by leading fashion retailers in Cambodia, in the face of government intransigence, that they are “ready to factor in higher wages and want more co-operation with trade unions” is common sense yet ground-breaking. And Labour Behind the Label and Clean Clothes Campaign report that several companies have recently adopted credible living wage benchmarks.

These efforts are valuable innovations. But we now need transformational steps to achieve a living wage in the garment sector. At the London workshop, a number of brand-representatives stressed key factors for success in achieving the living wage.

Businesses need leadership to model robust precedents that embed the living wage in company practice, and advocate loudly about the need for governments and the sector to act together.

Cross-sector co-operation between the most influential companies, unions and governments is vital to develop a new wave of mutual obligations across the garment sector. This can institutionalise credible benchmarks for the living wage, enforce supply chain transparency, and embed sector-wide collective bargaining agreements with trade unions and governments.

And a gender perspective is also key. The vast majority of workers producing our clothes are women, and the living wage must embrace the basic needs of these women and their families.

With this systemic and sector-wide approach, the apparel industry would reassess the share of risk and value in their supply chain. It would substantially bolster its social license to operate in the 21st century by building trust with customers and the wider public.

Brand representatives have privately admitted that higher wages deliver higher productivity and lower other costs such as absenteeism and employee turnover. Apparel companies’ long term sustainability, including their profitability, depends on stable politics, rule of law, an increasingly engaged and motivated workforce, and adequate regulation to prevent leading companies being undercut by short-termist, cowboy-competitors. This future has the UN Guiding Principles’ call for companies to respect human rights, and government to protect human rights, at its heart.

Phil Bloomer is executive director at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. He tweets at @pbloomer