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Op-Ed | Garment Workers Deserve a Global Minimum Wage

Garment manufacturing is global. But the rules that protect workers are not, creating a race to the bottom amongst poor countries aiming to attract foreign investment with the lowest wages and flimsiest safety standards. In the wake of recent tragedies and protests in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Haiti, it's time for a global minimum wage, argues Tansy E. Hoskins.
Cambodian garment workers protest outside a factory | Source: Flickr
  • Tansy E Hoskins

LONDON, United Kingdom — Apparel is one of the world's oldest, largest and most global export industries. In a world where robots are used to automate many types of manufacturing, garments are still made by hands-on human toil. But fashion and apparel, as an industry, is failing the vast majority of its workers.

The scale of the failure can be seen in the 1,134 deaths at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, the five garment workers recently shot dead in Cambodia and the thousands of workers eeking out a living, all but enslaved in a South Korean factory complex built on the site of the Chambert Post Prison Camp in Haiti.

As a result, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Haiti have all been buffeted by recent protests staged by impoverished garment workers, who have gone on strike, fought pitched street battles with police and burned factories. In each country, their demands are the same: better wages and better working conditions.

Yet, across the board, the protestors have been accused of being traitors, bringing disrepute to their countries, jeopardising the garment manufacturing industries that have taken root there and causing foreign investment to flee.

Raymond Vernon, in 1979, coined the term "global scanning" to describe the process by which large multi-national companies systematically search the globe for the most advantageous conditions for their production facilities. Often, this means looking for (and bolstering) governments that crack down heavily on dissent, prevent wage rises and oppose the growth of trade unions, as seen in Indonesia, Myanmar and Haiti.

What's more, if factors like rising wages or the expansion of unions threaten profits, companies can simply source their labour elsewhere. For workers, this constant threat of replacement makes fighting for higher standards risky because if things do shift, companies just up and leave for other locations. South Korean firm Sae-A (which operates some of the largest garment production facilities in countries including Indonesia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Myanmar and Costa Rica) used to have factories in Guatemala, until a battle with union workers prompted the company to pull out of the country and shift operations to Haiti.

A global minimum wage would help to change these dynamics by ensuring that wages cannot drop below a certain level.

Such a scheme is supported by figures like Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, economist and civil society leader Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, and Dr. Jason Hickel, an author and lecturer at the London School of Economics.

Ideally, a global minimum wage would be a fixed percent (economists have suggested 50 percent) of each country’s median wage, so it would be in tune with local economy, cost of living and purchasing power in each country. “It is true that this model would leave large disparities in the cost of labour between countries, so multi-national corporations would still be able to pick and choose between them depending on where costs are lowest,” said Dr. Hickel. “But a solid global minimum wage is a good stopgap measure that would prevent the worst abuses.” Currently, companies continually scan the world for the most advantageous conditions, putting pressure on poor countries to compete with other poor countries by offering the lowest minimum wages. “The problem is there is no floor in the ‘race to the bottom,’” added Hickel.

In theory, the adoption of a global mimimum wage would also offer benefits to fashion and apparel brands, not only because it would make them less vulnerable to the public relations fallout from disasters like Rana Plaza, but because workers with living wages have some money to spend on the very consumer goods that these companies sell. What's more, a well-fed, well-treated worker is a better worker, more likely to stay in a job long-term and be capable of producing high-quality goods.

Asia Floor Wage is an alliance aiming to ensure garment workers across Asia are paid a living wage. The group's 'floor wage' is calculated using the World Bank’s PPP (purchasing power parity) dollar and buys the same set of goods and services in all countries. “The Asia Floor Wage is the first time a cross-border agreement and formula has been found. It is a minimum living wage formula agreed upon by Asian garment unions to protect garment workers in the global garment industry,” said Anannya Bhattacharjee of the Garment and Allied Workers Union in India, who is on the Asia Floor Wage's steering committee. “We would like to work more closely with our colleagues in Latin America and Africa to develop a minimum living wage that would be applicable to all the Global South.”

There is hope that such a scheme will be rolled out globally and end the destructive competition that pits poor countries against each other, incentivising them to attract sorely-needed foreign investment by offering the lowest wages.

Until then, Haitian workers live with the fear of losing their jobs to Cambodian workers who are threatened, in turn, by the spectre of Bangladeshi workers, and so on.

Tansy E Hoskins is a political activist, writer and the author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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