Posts Tagged ‘textile industry’

20150607 Not-getting-paidMany readers know that I’m a union official in my day job. Starting a fortnight ago, I’m now leading a renewed drive of my union into the fashion modelling industry. Nothing like a challenge: models are about as difficult to organise as you can imagine. They do not have a fixed workplace or even an ’employer’ and effectively work on a gig basis. Their negotiating power is almost nil (you can read what it’s like in first person in this recent xojane feature).

This is a twist given that I’ve been blogging about other aspects of the fashion industry for several years, e.g.:

Then again, the high number of posts about fashion supply chains may not be so surprising: the producers of The True Cost assert that the fashion industry accounts for one-sixth of global employment.

More poignant is that I started writing about insecure work in the Global South in 2011, never guessing that I’d end up fighting it right here, on the home turf. What I didn’t appreciate back then is that, outside of union strongholds, the very notion of employment has been disintegrating in the developed world.

The periphery appears in the core, the South in the North (Professor Andreas Bieler, September 2014)

While precarious forms of labour have always been predominant in the Global South, they have increasingly also spread into the Global North. As a result, trade unions are under pressure, as it is much more difficult to organise a workforce in temporary, vulnerable and constantly changing employment relations (ibid, May 2015)

We can’t sit back and ignore the growing number of people in nonstandard employment just because it’s difficult to reach them. Unions remain the Rolls Royce vehicle of worker voice; if we don’t grow into these areas, the situation will eventually become so intolerable that some other organisation will fill the void but they will lack the resource base and expertise to provide the ‘full service’ workplace representation that comes with union membership.

So it’s really important that this succeeds. Wish me luck! Please check out and ‘like’ the Facebook Page to watch how it goes 🙂

Mujeres saharuis en la maquila

Mujeres saharuis en la maquila (Photo credit: gaelx)

I’ve written a few times about Latin American workers (see links below). Here at last is a broad description of attempts to cross-border advocacy in Latin American apparel-producing countries and North American apparel-consuming countries.

The book uses four 1990s campaigns as case studies:

  • Guatemala: Phillips Van-Heusen
  • El Salvador: Gap supplier Mandarin International (Taiwanese-owned)
  • Honduras: Kimi (Korean-owned), supplier of retail store-label clothes
  • Nicaragua: Chentex (Taiwanese-owned), another supplier of retail store-label clothes

The picture is not a pretty one. These four campaigns attained the rare victory of union recognition but, after that, their companies invariably relocate. The wonders of Capital Mobility. It makes me think of trying to stop a vacuum cleaner by holding its nozzle; it can simply detach the nozzle and use another (I’m sure there are better metaphors … suggestions are welcome!) Even so, the author writes, capital is not omnipotent and with better co-ordinated campaigns could be held to account. The world is only so big and brands in this day and age should have nowhere to hide.

The author, Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, explains how pressure in each case was applied across borders, at both ends of the supply chain. He calls this the Keck-Sikkink or Boomerang Model (p. 22). Mis-coordinated boomerang campaigns, he argues, keep allowing the ball to be dropped after a short-term victory.

He sets out the history of overlapping pressure groups, something I’ve noticed before. Apparently the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) was set up in 1999 specifically by people unhappy about the compromise-solution of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) which, among other things, does not insist on a minimum living wage (p. 12). The FLA are now famous as Apple/Foxconn’s inspectors (more on them next month). Likewise the IGLHR, formerly NCLC, was set up in 1981 by people unhappy with the AFL-CIO‘s pro-US foreign policy approach during the Cold War (p. 82). The AWU-APHEDA spat in Australia is another symptom of the same division. People have long memories.

Even allowing for these historical differences, there is a recurring difference in approach between groups that push the need for independent unions, and groups that push for independent monitoring (p. 13). I wish I’d learned this sooner. Throughout this blog I’ve looked at campaigns run by both camps and I’ve been somewhat biased towards the AFL-CIO approach. As a union official, it’s hard not to be. I just don’t see how you can have a successful campaign without involving the people who stand to benefit from it; you’ll end up with a result on paper that is not enforced.

In Keck and Sikkink’s (1998) model, domestic non-state actors establish ties with NGOs, creating transnational advocacy networks (TANs), who, in turn, put pressure on their respective states to bring about social change. This model […] is quite useful but it inadvertently places too much emphasis on TANs, making them seem like they are the “saviors” of the “poor, downtrodden masses” …

[T]heir model gives one the impression that domestic non-state actors cannot independently determine their own fates without “outside assistance”. (p. 103)

and again:

[W]omen maquiladora workers have often been framed as “victims” while U.S.-based consumers and activists are seen as “saviors”. (pp. 149-150)

However you need the consumer advocacy to open up the space for organising; it’s not often there as a given. Indeed weak labor regulation is usually one of the reasons production has been moved to these countries to begin with. It’s all very comforting to prefer organising over distant advocacy but it might not always be practicable. Consider the IGLHR report into the KYE Systems factory, maker of Microsoft peripherals (which I covered here). The only options for a local partner are the Chinese state union or unrecognised local NGOs whose leaders risk prison.

If it were ever used properly, the boomerang model would actually render the dilemma moot. Successful campaigns draw on moral and material leverage (p. 59). As one wit (@WithoutDoing) recently put it on Twitter:

For something to be changed it must be both pushed and pulled (12 Oct)

This is absolutely not a theoretical debate. The two camps need to have more than a passing regard for one another, they need to actively co-operate. Using the example of the Salvadoran maquila (garment) industry, the author notes:

Consensus between the NLC, AFL-CIO and UNITE existed, on the surface, during the Gap campaign. In reality, tensions ran high. It should be pointed out that all three groups did work together, but their strategic and historical differences generated unnecessary conflict. The NLC distrusted the [local peak groups’] involvement in the Gap campaign because of their previous ties with AIFLD [the pro-US foreign policy outfit which generally sought to undermine leftist regimes in Latin America]. AIFLD’s uncritical stance towards El Salvador’s human rights abuses generated dissent within the AFL-CIO, sparking the establishment of the NLC in 1981 […] The NLC rejects working with all “corrupt” centrist unions like the CTD, CTS and CNTS […]

The ACILS, AFL-CIO and UNITE also claimed that the NLC’s campaigns are too “media-driven” and that they leave workers defenseless after they are inevitably fired. These organisations suggest that the NLC should work towards empowering workers and making them (rather than consumers, students, or [NLC leader] Charles Kernaghan) the primary agents of change, on the ground, through unionization.

These perspectives highlight a crucial, though unstated point: officials from the NLC, UNITE, the AFL-CIO and ACILS generally mistrust each other (p. 82).


People need to focus on this bigger picture, an awful lot depends on it.

As to the issue of Capital Mobility, Armbruster-Sandoval suggests region-wide organizing as a means of limiting companies’ tendency to ‘cut and run’ (p. 133). It had not been launched at the time this book was published but the Asia Floor Wage campaign does exactly that.

Related posts:

Deutsch: Kreuzwinkelständer der Modekette KiK

Deutsch: Kreuzwinkelständer der Modekette KiK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago we saw the tragic death of at least 250 Pakistani apparel workers in an unregulated factory, the worst such disaster in history.

It later emerged that this factory was supplying garments to the European market including Germany’s KiK.

It also emerged that this very factory was audited by RINA (Registro Italiano Navale Group) at the behest of New York-based Social Accountability International (SAI) just a short while before the fire occurred, and certified as meeting the SA8000 standard as a fair and safe supplier.

SA8000 is a voluntary standard promoted by SAI as a means of ensuring that suppliers are ethical. No one would suggest that it is anything but sincere but this incident makes a mockery of it.

When interviewed by Al Jazeera, SAI’s Executive Director didn’t seem particularly upset or contrite about the incident either:

True, if the deaths were anyone’s fault it was the negligent factory owners (who are now on murder charges). Plus, if you look narrowly at the auditing aspect, it’s more RINA’s fault than SAI’s as they were the people on the ground.

However it really doesn’t rescue SAI. To blame it on RINA is to use the precise defense that suppliers try to use but know they can’t get away with. Imagine if Mattel said that in 2007 when it had the toxic paint problem: “Well, hey, it’s not our supplier, it’s our supplier’s supplier doing the wrong thing, so how are we to know?” If SAI, the supposed leader, can’t monitor their own contractors, how are companies supposed to?

This tragic episode underscores the shortcomings of SA8000. You can’t manage workers’ rights in the same way that you might manage food additive levels or child restraint shock resistance, as something that can be measured and implemented but always imparted. All companies need to do is stand back and listen to what people want (like … ventilation and fire exits, let’s say). It’s not really that difficult.

Asia Monitor Resource Centre recently published a book about this very issue, titled The Reality of Corporate Social Responsibility: Case Studies on the Impact of CSR on Workers in China, South Korea, India and Indonesia. You can download the PDF on their site here: It is well worth checking out.

This book is written by people at the front line thoughout developing Asia and documents how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that reflects the corporate agenda is not only unhelpful to workers in the developing world but is frequently used as a strategy to prevent workers and other community groups from having their place at the table.

In the Asian context, CSR mostly involves activities like adopting villages for what they call a ‘holistic development’, in which they provide medical and sanitation facilities, build school and houses, and helping villagers become self-reliant by teaching them vocational and business skills. Such corporate strategies have been effectively hegemonic, providing a strong legitimacy and license for corporations to sustain the exploitation of human and natural resources. More importantly, it leads people to wrongly assume that the business houses, and not the states, are responsible for citizens’ basic rights to better education, clean water, healthcare, etc. It disciplines the un-informed poor motivating them to behave in ways that make state regulation obsolete, while leaving them at the mercy of market forces. (pp. 2-3)

Rights aren’t something that you can “give” or impart, they are something that you acknowledge. That’s the problem with CSR: it is by definition an after-thought that merely papers over an existing way of doing things without seriously challenging them.


SAI’s mistake was not promoting SA8000, it was disowning this catastrophic system failure. They haven’t made a peep of a suggestion that they need to re-examine their way of doing things.

SAI is funded by the companies that obtain its certification (rather like FairTrade), which leads me to think it will soldier on through the crisis, notwithstanding the harm that’s been done to its reputation.

There is more than one group operating in this space and it’s really important that they aren’t all tarred with the same brush. All up, six groups belong to the Joint Initiative on Corporate Accountability and Workers Rights.

SAI is one. Another, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), was set up during the Clinton administration. It has also been criticised for being too soft on business (they are the company auditing Foxconn).

Of the others, Fair Wear Foundation, Clean Clothes Campaign and the Workers Rights Consortium all put the promotion of union membership and worker consultation and participation front and centre and really need to be lauded for the great work they do in partnership with developing-world worker organisations.

The last, the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative, seems to adopt a tripartite ILO-type approach which presumes unions’ involvement without pushing it too hard.

The best thing that could come out of this disaster is that FWF, CCC and WRC start getting some phone calls from companies whose motivation isn’t white-washing but who want to know that their suppliers are decent places to work in reality.

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English: The Buddhist Institute was founded on...

The Buddhist Institute - one of Cambodia's most prominent civil associations

Last week I reported about wrangling in Cambodia regarding a proposed law to regulate associations.

I thought it might be worth exploring what might lay behind the civil groups and NGOs distrust of the government’s intentions (other than the not-so-distant memory of government repression).

One concern is that the government will mis-use its regulatory power and intervene in associations’ internal affairs.

A second is the law will give vested interests another lever with which they can put the squeeze on ordinary Cambodians.

Both are possible. However that is the half empty side of the glass. On the flip side, a closer relationship between government and associations also brings the possibility of two positive changes:

1. More bureaucracy means a shift from charismatic authority to Rational-legal authority. In plain English: Decisions are more likely to be made consistent with previous decisions and other related policies. They become less arbitrary and more predictable. In such an environment, interest groups have to make better use of argument by analogy and court advocacy to bring about change, instead of merely appealing to the powers that be. In short they will need to professionalise.

2. By working closely with associations, the government legitimises them and obliges itself to work with them. In developed nations, the experience has been that bureaucrats, politicians and interest groups start to work in a symbiotic manner. This is sometimes called “the Iron Triangle“. Regulation is a two-way street; it cannot be imposed without some kind of feedback loop. That gives civil associations a way to press their case which – at least in Cambodia – they have not had until now.

The wealthy have always been able to gain access to politicians; bureaucracy at least levels the playing field somewhat. I am optimistic that this change will bring about more good than bad, even if it is prima facie cumbersome. The challenge, I suspect, will be preventing it from being undermined by corruption.

Related post:

Although he never describes himself as such, Kelsey Timmerman is the all-American kid (despite being aged 29 by the end of the book). He is no political theorist. He is a Midwesterner out to enjoy life, taking his time finishing university and working leisure-oriented jobs in between so he can enjoy the great outdoors.

He follows the news, though, and is aware of the existence of sweatshops. Somewhere along the way, it began tickling at his mind that the sporting apparel he is passing over the counter to people might have been made under inhumane conditions but he has no way of knowing it.

So he goes to find out and the result is this book, Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories and People That Make Our Clothes

The book is a tale of his six-month journey through garment manufacturing centers in Bangladesh, Cambodia and China, looking for the makers of his favourite flip-flops, jeans, t-shirt and boxers.

It contrasts with another book I’ve reviewed, Belching Out the Devil, in that Kelsey does not have a predetermined action plan. He’s not out to ‘nail’ anyone in particular. It is simply a chronicle of his own journey from naiveté to understanding.

One thing that he is very clear about: boycotting is not the solution. Bad as the factories might be in Western eyes, many who can’t get a job there end up garbage-picking in the rubbish dump. That is inhumane.

He also realises that companies who want to take the high road will either go out of business(!) or end up taking the low road eventually, e.g. Levi Strauss who asserted during the nineties that they would never send jobs offshore.

In the end he endorses consumer engagement as the best way forward. Consumers have the power to support companies who make a genuine effort to, firstly, be transparent about the conditions in their supply chain and, secondly, improve them where possible.

Lastly I have to mention one fact that left me gobsmacked: There are over one thousand development NGOs operating in Cambodia!

Three female workers in Sri Lanka apparel industry

Image via Wikipedia

There are two benchmark figures in the area of low-income and poverty wages:

– The Minimum Wage (where it exists) is the legally-enforceable minimum rate of pay, set either by legislation or by some administrative process. If it is not observed, it is fairly straightforward to take legal action against the offending employer.

– The Living Wage, on the other hand, is the minimum wage necessary for a person to make ends meet. Ideally this is less than the minimum wage but alas it has long been the case that in many States of the USA the Minimum Wage pays less than a Living Wage. The exact level of the Living Wage constantly changes as costs of living increase.

If an employer fails to pay the living wage there is no easy way to get them to do so!

Enter Asia Floor Wage.

AFW is a coalition of unions and other activists who pursue fair wages for garment workers in Asia (they refer to the Living Wage as a ‘Floor Wage’). This week they published revised minimum monthly rates for the six major garment manufacturing countries:

  • Bangladesh 12248 BDT
  • Cambodia 692903 Riel
  • India 7967 Rupees
  • Indonesia 2132202 Rupiah
  • Srilanka 19077 Rupees
  • China 1842 RMB

These rates are equal to 540 USD at purchasing-power parity.

According to AFW, the ‘gap’ between the Living Wage and the Minimum Wage in these countries is, on average, 1 to 2. Guangdong, China’s manufacturing province, comes close but still falls short.

AFW have also assembled a helpful guide for retailers and sourcing companies who want to take CSR seriously, explaining how they can meaningfully commit to fair wages in garment production.

Great Stencil Bleached jeans (at She's Geeky)

Image by deb roby via Flickr

I was quite unaware of this until reading up about it for this post.

Apparently the bleached jean look is nowadays attained through a process known as sandblasting, which can create exact patterns rather than the overall pre-worn look that was created through stone-washing.

The problem is this. The key ingredient in the sand is silica. When silica becomes suspended in the air during production, it can enter the lungs and cause silicosis. The recommended maximum silica component is 1% and most U.S. factories keep it at 0.5%. However in Turkey (for example) it is as high as 80%.

Silicosis has a similar effect to tuberculosis, preventing a person from breathing. There is no known cure. And it can have an onset after as little as six months in an unfavourable environment.

What a disgrace that people could stand idly by and allow that to continue! All it would take is provision of adequate safety wear.

Clean Clothes Campaign are naming and shaming the companies that either won’t commit to a ban on the practice or have announced a change but done nothing. Their worst offender list includes Benetton, Diesel, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace.

Annoyed? Then send them a message! It’ll only take 20 seconds at most.

You can also read CCC’s full 20-page report on the issue.