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Susan Malikoff

The global garment industry

By Susan Malikoff, Warrnambool College

What are you wearing today?

Do you know how it was made, where it was made and who really made it?

Today, I would like to raise awareness of the atrocious working hours, inadequate pay and life-threatening situations faced by overseas garment workers and how I believe they can be improved by wealthy corporations.

By now, it’s not a secret that most of the clothes we buy are manufactured overseas. In fact, 92 per cent of the clothing sold in Australia comes from developing countries.

Typically, it is manufactured by women in sweatshops – factories offering low wages for long hours of difficult work. As Australians rush to order an outfit online in time for Friday night, women overseas rush to their 11-hour shifts, six days a week.

While we may refuse to wear something to dinner because ‘I just wore it last week, are you crazy?’, women in Myanmar refuse to drink water so they won’t miss out on much-needed income by taking toilet breaks. In Bangladesh, they are left wondering how they will afford basic food, water and shelter, with wages 45 per cent below the living wage.

As Australians, how can we pride ourselves on being such a ‘free’ nation when we capitalise on what has been described as ‘modern slavery’?

This exploitation is fuelled by increasing pressure from large corporations in wealthy countries like Australia, who prioritise profits over all else. Thirty-five years ago, Bangladesh garment sales made up less than four per cent of the country’s total exports. Australia had its own large textile industry – in my regional hometown of Warrnambool, the Fletcher Jones garment factory employed 1300 people. Today, this factory is no longer in operation, unable to compete with low overseas production costs, and 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s export earnings now come from the industry.

As a result of this increase in demand, garment workers are also subjected to dangerous conditions. The pressure to cut costs has led many factory owners to cut corners when it comes to safety.

‘I was scared. I didn’t feel like going inside.’ These were the words of Beauty, a young woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2015. She worked in Rana Plaza, a Bangladeshi sweatshop for well-known brands like Primark and Walmart. Beauty knew there were cracks in the building’s foundations. She knew she shouldn’t go inside. However, her manager forced her to begin work.

Built on the remnants of a pond with illegally added floors, the collapse of the Plaza in 2013 was inevitable. While Beauty survived, 1100 people were not so lucky. Those who weren’t killed were trapped, with some reportedly having to saw off their own limbs to free themselves. Do you still feel like joking about how your new jeans cost you an arm and a leg?

For the sake of human rights – the right to a living wage, the right to just and favourable conditions of work, and the right to life – this simply cannot continue.
So, what can be done? Should we boycott clothes made overseas? Buy less? Make our own? While these concepts sound promising, they are simply not practical.

Furthermore, sudden withdrawal from overseas factories could do more harm than good. Last financial year, the garment industry generated $37 billion in Bangladesh, over 12 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Research undertaken by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2014 also found that growth of the Bangladesh garment industry has led to the falling rate of child marriage and a dramatic increase in girls’ education.

Instead of getting married and having children, many young Bangladeshi women are remaining enrolled in school to increase their chances of obtaining employment in a garment factory. Providing many women with otherwise inaccessible economic security and being the single source of growth for Bangladesh’s rapidly developing economy, loss of revenue from the industry would undoubtedly have dire consequences for countries like Bangladesh.

Therefore, I believe the power for change instead lies within the popular companies we know and love. The concept of corporate social responsibility isn’t a new one – in fact, after the collapse of Rana Plaza, 200 companies from countries such as Australia, the United States and Germany signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This agreement with trade unions led to workplace safety training and the installation of safety measures like fire sprinklers.

The power of Australian corporations to create change is also evident in the efforts of popular clothing chain Cotton On. Would you be happy to pay an extra dollar for a shirt knowing this money would go directly to the exploited worker? I know I would. This is the premise behind Cotton On’s foundation. Before paying for clothes in store, Cotton On customers are offered extra bottles of water or accessories, with 100 per cent of profits from these items going back to developing countries. They have already funded 5800 new schools, thus further helping to increase rates of girls’ education in these countries.

As a rural Australian separated from fast-paced city life, it is sometimes easy to feel powerless when faced with such ethical issues. However, initiatives like the Cotton On foundation allow all Australians – me, my friends, my family and you – to create change in a simple and cost-effective way, while still supporting developing economies.

Imagine if more major Australian retailers adopted similar programs. Target could add a surcharge on shirts and establish creches for Bangladeshi workers. Just Jeans could build windows in Burmese factories.  Developing economies could continue to benefit from our wealth yet working conditions would improve. Companies could market themselves as ethically conscious and customers could feel good about their purchases. Socially responsible companies would create a win–win situation.

While Cotton On still have a long way to go, they’ve proved it’s possible.

As Australians we have a naturally instilled sense of fairness – a ‘fair go’. These initiatives would help ordinary Australians to make ethical decisions, for a fair go for those from whom we profit.

Change cannot happen overnight. But I strongly believe we can strive for a more ethical global clothing industry through corporate social responsibility.