For many fashionistas, overdosing on cutting-edge fashion at the local shopping mall is the epitome of bliss. Yet for most of the workers who create the edgy designs we adore, the experience is anything but blissful.
Chances are that the slinky $200 top you’re trying to decide whether you can afford was made by someone earning as little as $4 an hour, working for long hours in an unsafe environment – even if the garment was made in Australia.
Up to now, much of our homegrown fashion has been constructed by poorly paid outworkers in unsafe sweatshop conditions. Many outworkers toil for more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week, receiving no overtime pay or penalty rates. They often receive no superannuation, annual leave or workers compensation. They’re usually made to pay for their own equipment and even thread.
Outworkers are frequently forced onto sham contracts. Because they’re paid so badly, they take on large volumes of work. To keep up with the fast turnaround typical of the fashion industry they face very tight deadlines, so end up working excessive hours.
But change is sweeping through the industry. On 22 March, federal parliament passed historic legislation giving outworkers in the fashion industry the same rights and responsibilities as employees. The Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill was passed by the Senate with the support of the Greens and the independents.
The legislation allows the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFUA) to enter and identify sweatshops and assist employees working in unacceptable conditions.
According to Ms Michele O’Neil, National Secretary of the TCFUA, ‘This law means that ... TCF outworkers and workers in sweatshops are entitled to be treated with the same dignity under the law as any other Australian employee. These workers will now be entitled to receive the same minimum wages and conditions as every other worker in the industry.’
She strongly urged industry employers to get on board. ‘It’s utterly unacceptable that in 2012 there are still significant numbers of workers in this industry who do not receive even the most basic working conditions, including a minimum hourly rate of pay, leave and a safe and healthy workplace.’
But Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia, the body which represents the fashion industry, is critical of the legislation. In a recent submission to a review of the Fair Work Act, it said that there were undoubtedly some vulnerable home based workers in the sector, but ‘most participants in the TCF industry do not fit that category and should not be defined as outworkers or sweatshop owners.
‘The current ... regime has removed the flexibility to employ casuals and contractors working from home and has become so complex [that] aspects are proving to be unworkable and difficult to comprehend.’
An ethical label
How have Australian outworkers’ poor working conditions been ignored for so long? Production in the fashion industry is outsourced, and supply chains can be very complicated. Brands that focus on cost alone can easily ignore the conditions under which their garments are produced. Outworkers often have poor English skills and can become very isolated.
The Fairwear campaign and Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) have made heroic efforts on this issue for years. Both groups work towards the goal of Australian outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry receiving fair wages and conditions.
ECA does this through its voluntary accreditation system. This system helps brands and manufacturers meet their legal obligations and standards throughout the entire supply chain.
Accredited companies are permitted to use the Ethical Clothing Australia swing tag or label. This shows that the garment was made in Australia and everyone involved in its production received at least the legal rates of pay and fair working conditions.
Last year ECA launched the Meet Your Maker campaign to increase awareness of its ethical label and the garment makers that were benefiting from it.
ECA spokeswoman Eloise Bishop said that there had been ‘a significant increase’ in the number of businesses applying for accreditation.
‘We now have more than 60 Australian businesses already accredited and applications for accreditation doubled [in 2010],’ she said.
‘We hope that campaigns such as Meet Your Maker contribute to this increasing level of awareness and interest in ethical manufacturing.’
The future: sustainable and fair?
As well as wanting their clothes to be produced fairly, consumers are also increasingly demanding that they be sustainable, with a low environmental and carbon footprint.
In 2010 ECA was commissioned by the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industries Innovation Council to look at creating a new voluntary label for Australia that would include sustainability factors.
The report recommended that the best way to do was this was to expand the existing ECA label to include an environmental accreditation as an optional extra. The Council is currently considering the study’s findings.