A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirms once more that global fashion brands are contributing to unsafe and unfair working conditions at garment factories in countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh by pressuring suppliers to drive down prices and produce faster. The study was based on hundreds of interviews with suppliers, workers, auditors, and experts.
Since their products are manufactured in a broad array of factories across multiple countries, with orders often being made through agents, it is difficult for fashion brands to monitor working conditions in the factories they work with. However, that shouldn’t be an excuse not to take responsibility for the problem, HRW argues.
“The marketplace requires clothing brands to produce and sell goods faster than ever, in response to changing consumer demands. But brands risk fueling labor abuses if they shrink the time available to workers to make their products without adequately monitoring the factory’s capacity or giving workers adequate time that factors in national holidays and weekly rest days”, said HRW in a statement.
Time pressure leads garment factories to commit abuses against workers
Poor forecasting, sudden changes in order volumes and delays in providing order specifications or approvals contribute to the time pressure. “We are getting pushed more and more to reduce our lead times. Sometimes we have to confirm some short lead times without any security [buffer] in sight or any tolerance by the brand. If we don’t agree to the lead times, we might lose the order”, complained a supplier as quoted by HRW.
The aforementioned time pressure leads to excessive overtime and workers being hired through contractors so that suppliers can avoid making social security and pension contributions. Another common practice is to outsource production to smaller, low-cost units without the brand’s permission. “This intense price pressure creates an environment that allows abusive cost-cutting practices to thrive, rather than firmly arresting them”, explains the organization.
HRW’s conclusions are similar to those of another study recently conducted by non profit organization Better Buying with 319 garment suppliers from 38 countries, in which more than half of respondents reported to have been affected by high-pressure cost negotiation strategies. Over 20 percent of respondents said that at least 20 percent of the orders they receive do not cover the costs of social, environmental, quality, and other compliance requirements. That confirms a 2016 International Labour Organization (ILO) survey of 1,454 suppliers in which 52 percent of participants said brands paid prices lower than production costs.
The metaphor used by an Indian factory worker interviewed by HRW summarizes the problem perfectly: “it’s like they [brands] are paying for a bus ticket and expecting to fly”.