168. Shock Ab­sorbers or as­sets

The Truth About Shop-Floor Work­forces

The Hand of Fashion - - CONTENTS -

The prob­lem of bad labour con­di­tions in the gar­ment sup­ply chain is quite straight­for­ward. If brands and re­tail­ers di­rect or­ders to wher­ever they get the best com­bi­na­tion of (low­est) price, qual­ity and de­liv­ery, sup­pli­ers have two choices. Ei­ther they con­stantly in­crease their ef­fi­ciency in or­der to lower unit costs, or they con­stantly cut ev­ery cost they have. The first op­tion in­volves in­vest­ment in tech­nol­ogy, train­ing and premises. To choose it, sup­pli­ers need some longer-term se­cu­rity of or­ders be­fore they will risk in­vest­ing. But se­cu­rity is scarce: they can be eas­ily re­placed by lower cost com­peti­tors as there are very low bar­ri­ers to en­try. There­fore, they mostly go for the sec­ond op­tion: they cut all costs (start­ing with work­ers’ wages and safety) and just con­cen­trate on cop­ing with the con­stant pres­sure on lead times. At the end of the day, fash­ion is a sea­sonal in­dus­try in which pro­duc­tion times are com­pressed to make room for new prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and new col­lec­tions. The most ad­mired com­pa­nies in the fast fash­ion in­dus­try boast 2-3 week cy­cle times from de­sign­ers desk to shop shelf at

Si­mone Cipri­ani, Chief Tech­ni­cal Ad­vi­sor of The ITC Eth­i­cal Fash­ion Ini­tia­tive and Auret Van Heer­den, Labour Ex­pert and Pres­i­dent of Equi­cep­tion out­line the bad labour con­di­tions within the gar­ment sup­ply chain and of­fer so­lu­tions. Pho­tos: Sab­rina Bos­son

in­cred­i­ble prices and this re­quires that sup­pli­ers get cheaper and quicker all the time.

We know where this has led: to an anony­mous sup­ply chain, in which con­sumers seek lower prices, re­tail­ers re­spond by cut­ting the mar­gins they give to the brands, brands cut their mar­gins to sup­pli­ers and sup­pli­ers cut the mar­gins to their work­ers. Gar­ment work­ers have be­come the shock-ab­sorbers of the sys­tem: their wages and the hours they work have to ab­sorb all the com­pet­i­tive pres­sures pushed down the sup­ply chain. The im­me­di­ate con­se­quences are: 1) a com­pres­sion in work­ers’ wages; 2) grow­ing ca­su­al­i­sa­tion of work, be­cause sup­pli­ers tend to em­ploy a core work­force to re­duce their ex­po­sure to labour costs and so­cial charges; if they re­ceive more or­ders they pull in short term or tem­po­rary work­ers, or they sub­con­tract.

And it doesn’t stop there. In such a zero-sum sup­ply chain, sup­pli­ers cut the mar­gins to their sup­pli­ers who all look to save costs and cut cor­ners. Even the build­ing con­trac­tors who con­struct the fac­to­ries hol­low-out the con­struc­tion to the point where build­ing col­lapses are in­evitable. In other cases, sup­pli­ers sim­ply rent the cheap­est space they can, de­spite the lack of light­ing, ven­ti­la­tion and fire ex­its.

At the other end of the sup­ply chain con­sumers have ben­e­fited from cloth­ing price de­fla­tion and more choice than ever be­fore, but at what so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal cost?

How do we break this vi­cious cir­cle? To date, we have seen a lot of ad hoc re­me­di­a­tion at the mar­gins - mostly re­act­ing to a cri­sis like Rana Plaza and us­ing CSR au­dits. Un­for­tu­nately the au­dits are gen­er­ally su­per­fi­cial and of­ten gamed by sup­pli­ers, and even well done au­dits do not ad­dress the root causes of the prob­lems that frankly lie in the na­ture of the sup­ply chain it­self. We have to take a hard look at the model of the global sup­ply chain we have cre­ated and ask our­selves what it would take to make it net pos­i­tive for peo­ple and the en­vi­ron­ment.

Two crit­i­cal el­e­ments are the in­volve­ment of con­sumers and of work­ers.

“Change is pos­si­ble and the tools ex­ist. Dis­pos­able fash­ion means noth­ing to the peo­ple who wear it and to the peo­ple who make it; re­spon­si­ble fash­ion gives us back the real worth of the clothes and shoes we pro­duce and buy”

Con­sumers are chang­ing the in­cen­tive struc­ture of the in­dus­try, be­cause they are in­creas­ingly un­will­ing to close their eyes and tol­er­ate this sit­u­a­tion. A poll car­ried out by YouGov and the Global Poverty Project found that 74% of re­spon­dents would be will­ing to pay 5% more if they knew the real story be­hind prod­ucts. Con­sumers are ready to stand against un­fair fash­ion: they just need more in­for­ma­tion to un­der­stand its true cost; they need to know the real story be­hind each prod­uct. This is not sim­ply about do­ing more au­dits; it is about re­veal­ing the lives and the craft of the work­ers who make our favourite prod­ucts. There are the so­cial re­search tools and or­gan­i­sa­tions to do it and this opens the door to the in­volve­ment of work­ers in talk­ing about them­selves.

Work­ers can be di­rectly in­volved in im­prov­ing their work­ing con­di­tions and en­rich­ing the mean­ing of their work in the process. Job en­rich­ment is about en­abling them to have a say and a stake in the whole pro­duc­tion process. Work­ers can use mo­bile phones or web­sites to rate their work­ing con­di­tions. In Cam­bo­dia this is done us­ing the In­ter­ac­tive Voice Call, a tool de­vel­oped by Bet­ter Fac­to­ries Cam­bo­dia. There are also sim­ple web tools to raise the aware­ness of work­ers about their rights that are ef­fec­tive even with peo­ple who have a low lit­er­acy rate.

A road map for fash­ion com­pa­nies: two sim­ple ac­tions to in­volve con­sumers and work­ers.

Par­tic­i­pate in a pro­gramme to as­sess the im­pact of your work on peo­ple and tell con­sumers about it. Part­ner with an or­gan­i­sa­tion that does so­cial re­search and thus en­ables you to tell the real sto­ries be­hind each prod­uct in a cred­i­ble and au­then­tic way.

Invest in your sup­pli­ers to raise skills and mo­ti­va­tion and bring ar­ti­sanal qual­ity back to the in­dus­try. How? 1) Work with a smaller num­ber of long-term sup­pli­ers to im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity, qual­ity and value-ad­di­tion. Th­ese “strate­gic sup­pli­ers” would have longer-term con­trac­tual re­la­tion­ships that would al­low them to invest in up-skilling work­ers and up-grad­ing fac­to­ries. 2) Im­prove the skills of work­ers and make their work more mean­ing­ful, and bet­ter paid, by al­low­ing small teams of multi-skilled work­ers to pro­duce a whole piece. It re­quires on the job train­ing and a dif­fer­ent or­gan­i­sa­tional struc­ture, but it pays back in terms of ef­fi­ciency, prof­itabil­ity and the sat­is­fac­tion of work­ers who be­come fully en­gaged in the or­gan­i­sa­tion of the fac­tory. 3) En­able work­ers to ac­tively par­tic­i­pate in or­gan­i­sa­tions and schemes to im­prove their work­ing con­di­tions, in­clud­ing the use of mo­bile phones or web­sites: de­vote a per­son in your HR team to fa­cil­i­tate it.

Change is pos­si­ble and the tools ex­ist. Dis­pos­able fash­ion means noth­ing to the peo­ple who wear it and to the peo­ple who make it; re­spon­si­ble fash­ion gives us back the real worth of the clothes and shoes we pro­duce and buy.

Open­ing pages and op­po­site: Have gar­ment work­ers be­come the shock ab­sorbers of the sup­ply chain? Above: Small teams of multi-skilled work­ers equals more ef­fi­ciency, pro­duc­tiv­ity and sat­is­fac­tion

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