Photo: Dhaka, Bangladesh: Nahida, a sewing machine operator, stands with her daughter, holding sweaters made in Bangladesh for a western brand. GMB Akash/Panos/OxfamAUS.
The leading brands selling uniforms as Australian families prepare to get back to school are turning over billions of dollars each year, while the women working making the clothes are paid poverty wages and struggling to give their children the basics, Oxfam Australia said.
Oxfam Australia labour rights manager Joy Kyriacou said Kmart, Target, Big W and Best & Less – which were all promoting their back-to-school clothing – had a combined annual revenue of more than $13 billion.
“The women in Asia making clothes for these household name Australian brands are trapped in poverty by pittance wages – often left with no other choice but to live in slums, in some cases separated from their children – and struggling to provide the essentials for their families,” Ms Kyriacou said.
Ms Kyriacou said a report released by Oxfam late last year, What She Makes, included research that showed that on average, just four per cent of the price of a piece of clothing sold in Australia goes towards workers’ wages in garment factories across Asia.
The research, conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, showed that in Bangladesh – where wages are extremely low – an average of just two per cent of the price of an item of clothing sold in Australia goes to factory workers’ wages.
“This means that for a $5 school polo top made in Bangladesh, an average of just 10 cents is paid to the factory workers who made it,” Ms Kyriacou said.
“But the research also estimated that if the price of clothing was increased by just one per cent – just five cents for a $5 school shirt – brands could afford to pay a living wage. Oxfam believes with the profits being made by factory owners, wholesalers and retailers in the fashion industry, the cost of paying workers a living wage can realistically be absorbed in fashion supply chains.”
As part of its research, Oxfam Australia spoke to women working in factories in Bangladesh, who told stories of being forced to cut short their education and start work in the garment sector.
For 29-year-old Nahida, who currently works as a machine operator in a Dhaka factory that supplies to the Australian market, providing for her seven-year-old daughter Rafsana is a constant battle.
Nahida had dreams of studying and becoming a doctor, but her family was entrenched in poverty and she told Oxfam she had to leave school at age 13 to work in the garment industry. Today, Nahida works six days a week and earns as little as $115 a month. As a single mother, she is worried about Rafsana being alone at home when she must work and has had to borrow money when her daughter has been ill.
“Because I am not educated, I cannot work in another job,” Nahida told Oxfam. “If I was educated, I could work as a school teacher and give more to my daughter. I hope that I can pay for my daughter’s education by working hard and that is what I want most. I love thinking about it.”
Ms Kyriacou said as Australian families juggled their own demands in preparing to get their children back-to-school, they should also consider holding brands accountable. Some brands, including Kmart, Target and Big W, had come good on revealing where their clothes were made. This is a positive step.
“But we’re asking Australians to tell the brands they love that the time has come to also ensure living wages – so women like Nahida can live with basic dignity, lift themselves out of poverty and realise their hopes for their children,” Ms Kyriacou said.
Industry discussion: Modern slavery – hidden in plain sight
The Supply Chain & Logistics Association of Australia (SCLAA) in partnership with Thomson Reuters will discuss the impact of modern slavery on today’s supply chains and strategies to manage these risks.
The event will be in Sydney, 8am start, on 21 February. Click here for information and to register.
Please note this is not an Oxfam event.