Excessively long work hours are still universal in garment manufacturing

Posted: August 23, 2011 in Responsible business, Rights around the world
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Overworked Student

*Third and final post in a series unpacking the ITGLWF‘s report into garment workers’ conditions in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines

I have a copy of a brochure printed here in Sydney in the early 1890s, titled “A Few Facts concerning the Hours Worked by Shop Assistants”. It was published by a group calling itself the Early Closing Association of N.S.W. (the present-day shop assistants’ union was not formed until 10 years later).

It recounts that Sydney’s shop assistants were often required to work 76 hours a week. An example real-life roster:

Mon-Thu:  7am – 9pm

Friday:  7am – 9.30pm

Saturday: 7am – 11pm

Concerned shoppers in Sydney can now relax in the knowledge that the people from whom their goods are obtained can (and usually do) refuse to work over 40 hours per week and must be paid extra for work outside of daytime, weekdays.

…or can they?

Alas. The people who sewed the garments that you buy often have no such guarantees. They work 50-80 hour weeks either because they are made to or because the wages for a 40 hour week are simply not enough to live on. The ITGLWF’s recent report into the garment industry found that it is the norm in for garment workers in developing nations to work overtime; at least 2 hours a day.

It is not accurate to call this work “overtime” – the workers are in fact required to work 70 hour weeks for minimal pay, something that people in the developed world – the people buying those jeans, T-shirts and sweaters – would consider Dickensian.

Some examples:

  • In one Indonesian factory, 40 workers were locked in an unventilated room with no toilet for three hours as punishment for failing to meet production targets
  • In 2002 Sri Lanka amended the law relating to overtime, dropping the word “voluntary” from its definition(!)
  • 6% of surveyed workers in the Philippines received no compensation at all for working overtime, while a further 18% received less than they were legally entitled to

Even if workers were given a genuine choice to work less hours, few of them are in a position to accept the offer. The wages for a 40 hour week barely cover the cost of living for a single person. When you add the cost of supporting either one’s own family or siblings back home, the extra hours are essential. It would be nice to spend some time with those family members though.

Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of human rights states:

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours

Clearly the workers’ advocates in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and elsewhere have their work cut out for them.

Lend a hand

Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) defends garment workers’ rights in developing nations. You can give immediate assistance to their work in one of two ways:

  1. Send a message of concern directly to the world’s five largest retailers
  2. Donate to CCC to support their work


Posts on FairForAll covering other aspects of the ITGLWF report:

  1. […] Excessively long hours are still universal in garment manufacturing 23 August 2011 […]

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