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The Right to a Living Wage (new)

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, necessary social services, and the right to security..."

- United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25.1


The majority of workers in the global fashion industry, which is worth over £36 billion a year in the UK alone, rarely earn more than two dollars a day.  Many have to work excessive hours for this meagre amount and struggle to properly feed, clothe and educate their families.  In many cases, garment workers earn less that the national poverty levels set by governments and international organisations.  This situation is further antagonised when prices paid to suppliers are cut by brands and retailers.

When challenged by on the wage issue, most companies claim that workers in their supply chains should be paid the minimum wage or the industry standard in that country, whichever is the higher.  But this isn't enough.  Minimum wages, usually defined by governments, are set in the context of ferocious competition and consequently often fall well below these governments' own poverty thresholds.  Furthermore, a minimum wage is often well below what is required for a living wage and research indicates that many suppliers do not even pay this legal minimum.

The problem is complicated further when the millions of piece- rate workers and homeworkers within the industry are considered.  When workers are paid by the number of garments they produce, rather than the number of hours they work, it becomes near-impossible to earn a living wage during a working week.  This informal employment makes workers more vulnerable to seasonal variations in work and often means they lose out on security payments, such as pensions or health insurance. Workers have reported that there is often a delay in wage payments, which means they are then forced into debt or to remain in their current job, in order to avoid losing the wages owed to them.  The garment workforce is 80% female, and those who are not looking after their parents often have children to support.  Many young people who have travelled from the country to work in the garment industry need to send their small wages to their family.

Labour Behind the Label believes that workers are entitled to be paid a living wage.  This may be defined as one which enables workers to meet their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport, as well as providing a discretionary income.  It should be enough to provide for the basic needs of workers and their families, to allow them to participate fully in society and live with dignity.  It should take into account the cost of living, social security benefits and the standard of living of others nearby. Finally, it should be based on a standard working week of no more than 48 hours, before overtime, and should apply after any deductions. Overtime hours should be paid at an overtime rate and be properly and clearly recorded on wage slips.

Positive steps are being taken in the campaign for living wages.  Many companies now have Codes of Conduct which outline the standards they are committed to upholding.  However, many of these practices are having little effect in the communities that are in desperate need of change.  In Bangladesh, wages have fallen by as much as half, despite increased consumer spending on clothes.  Companies need to investigate why their apparent commitment is not having the effect it should, as many workers still struggle to survive on the breadline.

Until recently it had been difficult to define a living wage.  The Asia Floor Wage Alliance uses the same definition of a living wage as Labour Behind the Label and takes this forward to calculate a pan-Asian 'floor wage' - literally a base level wage - which should function regardless of nationality, gender or workplace to provide a singular minimum living wage figure for all workers across the Asian garment industry.

It is certainly becoming increasingly necessary to adopt an agreed 'floor wage' across the whole industry.  The threat of relocation if wages and other costs increase contributes to the sense of fear that prevents workers from joining trade unions.  Many companies are wary of adopting a living wage for fear it will mean being priced out of the market.  Furthermore, factories that produce lines for a variety of retailers refuse wage changes that would complicate their pay system, particularly if they were expected to pay higher wages for the production of certain lines.  Only by working together can the brands end the downward spiral in prices that they have started and on which their competitiveness depends.

A 'floor wage' should give suppliers the confidence to negotiate prices that factor in a living wage, and to set meaningful minimum wages that will benefit the workers.

Labour Behind the Label
The Easton Business Centre
Felix Road Easton
Bristol BS5 0HE

0117 941 5844

Labour Behind the Label is a not-for-profit company Registered in England No. 4173634. Labour Behind the Label's charitable activities are funded by the Labour Behind the Label Trust, registered charity number 1159356.

Labour Behind the Label coordinates
the UK platform of the Clean Clothes Campaign