Hidden issues towards better working conditions for women

A guest blog by Gisela Burckhardt, development expert and head of the Executive Board of FEMNET e.V.

We are avid consumers. Today, we buy 4 times more clothes than we did in the 1980s. And why wouldn’t we? The price of clothes is at an all-time low. But making clothes is a costly enterprise. And workers in textile factories are paying the price– with starvation wages, unpaid overtime and even their lives. Considering that most workers in the garment industry are women, it is women who are disproportionately paying the price for our fast-fashion hunger.

Respect for the seamstress’ craft has all but disappeared. And it would be easy to think that this is only the case at discounters and fast fashion chains. After all, cheap fashion = cheap production. And so, we would like to think that the opposite also holds true, the more we pay, the better the working conditions will be. Yet research has shown that scores of expensive labels are often produced under the same hazardous conditions as the discount lines.

My own research, aided by RISE (Reseach Initiative for Social Equity Society), a partner of FEMNET and Clean Clothes Campaign Germany, took me to Bangladesh to explore production conditions for suppliers to high-quality brands.

Fire and safety improvements after Rana Plaza

There are around 5,000 garment factories in the country, where between 4 and 5 million workers are employed, 80 percent of them women. I was able to locate two factories that produced clothing for a high-end fashion brand. And the conditions for these workers were equally as bad as those of their counterparts elsewhere.

In some respects, conditions in Bangladesh have changed dramatically since the Rana Plaza catastrophe of 24 April, 2013 that killed 1,134 people and injured over 1,500 others. This, and previous disasters at factories led to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, that has been signed by around 200, mostly European, companies. A less binding counterpart dealing with building safety was backed mostly by U.S. based companies.

It cannot be denied that these measures, which of accountability and transparency in terms of building safety are a first step towards improving the working conditions in garment factories. Change, however, is not as fast-paced as our changing fashion seasons. Some of the factories audited by RISE to which I had access were so run down that parts had been recommended for closure.

Focusing on fire and building safety has probably saved the lives of many. But there are other more entrenched and less visible problems in factories, and they affect women disproportionately.

For example, in a sample of 12 factories inspected by RISE, many of the women who were sewing our clothes did not have the security of an employment contract. Maternity leave was not properly provided, and women were also subjected to constant verbal abuse from floor supervisors.

And often these women have no recourse. While it is true that most factories in Bangladesh have what is known as a “participation committee”, it is not normally an elected body; its members are appointed by the management. And, while seamstresses are allowed to negotiate their own wages, they do so without the support of unions, or the possibility of getting the contract in writing.

Still more to be done

The ongoing debate about protecting workers in the global clothing industry has led to some initial positive steps, but a lot still needs to change. Ensuring that workers in the garment industry, and particularly women, work under better conditions requires action from many:

  1. Policy is needed to create framework conditions and pass legislation to ensure companies carry out due diligence. Corporate responsibility for the entire supply chain has to be anchored in law, and liability must be established. This includes setting the rate of compensation a company would have to pay victims of a building collapse like the Rana Plaza disaster, rather than the voluntary guidelines that are in place today.
  1. Traceability should be required for all textiles and transparency created by publishing EU import documents and customs declarations. An electronic labelling system or a link between a label number and an online database would be viable options here.
  1. Purchasing companies should have to be transparent about the working conditions under which their wares are produced. This reverses the burden of proof, since companies would need to show that their goods were produced under ecological and fair conditions.
  1. The rights of workers in production countries have to be strengthened – this must include the freedom to organise, and the right to form workers’ councils and unions to represent workers’ interests. Purchasing companies have to ensure that freedom to organize is actually upheld by their suppliers and not just set out on paper.
  1. Consumers have to reflect on their own consumption habits. Today you can buy a t-shirt for less than what you’d pay for a bus ride; cheap clothes are the order of the day. Instead of buying disposable fashion, we should buy less and more consciously. Companies involved in the Fair Wear Foundation want to improve working conditions in the textile industry. We need to hold ourselves and not just corporations and the government responsible for ensuring humane production conditions. As consumers, we can act responsibly too.


Gisela Burckhardt is a development expert and part of the executive board of FEMNET e.V. Her latest book: Todschick. Edle Labels, billige Mode – unmenschlich produziert, was published by Heyne.

FEMNET is part of the German platform of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) dedicated to raising awareness to improve working conditions in the garment industry worldwide. Through the FairSchnitt project, FEMNET works with students majoring in fashion-related areas, providing them early in their careers with information about the challenges facing the global garment industry.

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