Garment worker and mum Tania often cries alone when she isn’t busy making clothes for Australian fashion brands.
The 21-year-old, who works as a sewing operator in central Bangladesh, has been forced to send her daughter 250km away and visit her only twice a year in a bid to ensure the family’s survival on her meagre wage.
She is one of hundreds of garment workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam whose daily suffering has been revealed in the first in-depth exploration of their lives in a new report.
Released on Monday by Oxfam, the report titled Made in Poverty has also uncovered the way Australian fashion brands have cared more for the clothes than the people making them, including demanding air-conditioning for their products while workers labour in horrid conditions.
“The findings are shocking and the case studies harrowing,” says Oxfam chief executive Dr Helen Szoke.
Researchers interviewed more than 130 factory owners, managers and others in powerful positions, as well as 472 women working in factories that supply clothing to Australian brands such as Kmart, Target, Big W, Cotton On and more.
“Systemic exploitation” of workers has been enabled by Australian companies, whose buying practices compel factory operators to reduce cost of production, the report reveals.
These buying practices include fierce price negotiation, short-term contracts with factories, and reducing delivery times at one end while imposing fines for not meeting those squeezed deadlines.
In a number of cases in Vietnam, interviewees reported buyers insisted on the installation of automatic fire extinguishers for rooms where finished clothing was stored, but did not require the same for the sewing floors where hot machines could also ignite.
The report reveals 100 per cent of workers interviewed in Bangladesh were not paid a living wage, and nine out of 10 could not afford enough food for themselves and their families until their next monthly pay.
The majority survive on pulses, rice and potatoes, sometimes eating a mix of old, fermented rice with chilli to feel fuller throughout the day.
In Vietnam, wages are comparatively higher, yet seven out of 10 said their pay was not enough to meet their needs.
Altogether, 99 per cent of workers in Vietnam were not paid a living wage that would allow them to buy nutritious food, live in decent housing, send their children to school and get health care when they are sick.
Oxfam’ has labelled the findings an indictment on the fashion industry, which turned over $23 billion in Australia last year.
“Brands are responsible for making credible commitments to ensure the payment of living wages to the workers making their clothes,” Dr Szoke said.
A previous Oxfam report, released in 2017, found paying living wages would add just one per cent on average to the retail price of a piece of clothing.
Ahead of the report’s release, Cotton On, Kmart, Target and City Chic announced credible commitments towards reaching a living wage for workers in their supply chains, Oxfam said in a statement on Monday.
Brands that have failed to do so include Myer, Best and Less, Bonds, Country Road, Forever New and Peter Alexander.