Why Supply Chain Legislation is a Feminist Issue for Canadian Fashion

by Dana Stefov | October 3, 2022
Background media: Portrait of a young Bangladeshi woman wearing a blue headscarf, looking directly at camera, not smiling. She's sitting behind a brown and black sowing machine, working on a piece of bright pink clothing in a room with white walls.
Photo: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam

Five reasons we need a law that requires Canadian fashion brands to end human rights abuses abroad.

Since the pandemic's start in early 2020, the supply chains of major companies have garnered increased public attention, including for their less-than-feminist approach to doing business with their supplier factories. However, the need to build solidarity with women working in global supply chains has been on the agenda of women's and human rights advocates for decades. 

Leading jurisdictions like France and Norway already have mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence laws.  

So why is mandatory human rights due diligence legislation a feminist issue? 

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1. It's mostly young women who make our clothes

Women make up 80 per cent of the world's 75 million garment workers.

They work long hours, and often, their overtime goes unpaid. They also work late during busy shipment times or when brands push for tighter deadlines and lower prices. Many don't see their families much as they commute long distances or live far from home.   

The women who do manufacturing work in their own homes are more vulnerable than those working in factories. They don’t have fixed contracts and work for piece rates. Generally, they earn even less than factory workers and often significantly less than the national minimum wage.   

It's estimated that  five million homeworkersare engaged in production for garment and textile supply chains in India alone. 


Learn what's a living wage in the first episode of our three-part series featuring journalist Sushmita Preetha and labour activist Kalpona Akter.

2. Clothing companies pay poverty wages to women workers 

A living wage—what's needed for a decent standard of living—is a fundamental human right recognized by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It's calculated based on a basket of essential goods and services earned in no more than 48 hours per week—food, utilities, housing, healthcare, education, clothing, transport, child care, and savings. 

Companies are responsible for ensuring workers in their supply chain receive a living wage, especially when sourcing from countries whose minimum wage falls below living wage standards.  

Most clothing imported into Canada comes from China, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam. However, most fashion brands don't pay suppliers enough to cover their workers' basic needs. Too many women workers live in extreme poverty, spiral into debt to feed their families, and can't afford healthcare or education for their kids. 

3. Gender discrimination and exploitation are rife in the garment industry

The clothing sector is one of the most important employers of women in the formal economy of low-income countries. But systemic and widespread sexual and gender-based violence is rife in factories due to a lack of regulation, patriarchal social norms and exploitation. This violence has escalated since the start of the pandemic. 

feminist approach would tackle labour exploitation as a systemic problem, seeking worker-driven mechanisms and putting women's voices and power at the heart of the industry. 

Without due diligence to prevent and remedy abuses, measures like anti-harassment and abuse policies, proactive gender equity policies, and grievance mechanisms where workers can seek remedy and defend their rights are up to a brand's goodwill.  

Improving working conditions and respecting women's rights is good for business. Factories that invest in improved working conditions and gender equality have seen up to a 25 per cent increase in productivity. Investments in women's health, education and child care have yielded a return on investment of 4:1 for employers. Unfortunately, these investments are the exception rather than the rule, more often seen as additional costs to doing business. 


Learn about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the women making our clothes in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in the second episode of our three-part series featuring journalist Sushmita Preetha and labour activist Kalpona Akter.

4. Feminists are tired of protesting this stuff

Remember when child labourers were found at a Nike supplier factory in the 1990s? Well, decades later, companies are still breaking the rules. Low wages, poor working conditions, and child labour are still rampant. 

Social auditing schemes haven’t worked. Nor have voluntary measures of corporate responsibility. Weak regulations that only ask companies to publish reports have failed to make an impact, as demonstrated in many jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom.  

Some brands have made commitments and efforts, but no significant evidence exists that large global brands are paying a living wage.  

A new approach is needed.  

Young Gen Z and Millenial consumers, largely women, are calling out brands to get their house in order. With each generation comes greater concern for human rights and the environment, transparency and even a willingness to pay more for ethical production. 

5. Adopting human rights due diligence legislation would help to advance Canada's feminist foreign policy goals

It's high time for Canada to ensure that its feminist approach to foreign policy includes accountability for Canadian garment companies sourcing abroad.

Canada's foreign policy isn't limited to the actions of state institutions, such as its embassies and armed forces. It also includes our trading relationships and how Canadian businesses behave around the world.

Unethical business practices by Canadian companies harm women and risk damaging Canada's diplomatic relationships with key trading partners. They also risk setting back its feminist foreign policy objectives. Robust legislation would level the playing field for brands by making it mandatory for any company selling clothing in Canada to respect human rights throughout their supply chains.

Parliament should pass a law that satisfies what's known as the three A's: 

  • Effectively prevents abuse
  • Helps affected people access remedy
  • Applies to all human rights

The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability compared the different bills before Parliament. It concluded that prevention, remedy and the indivisibility of human rights are the only effective ways forward.

Adopting a reporting-only law will not end women's rights violations or eliminate forced labour. In fact, it would distract us from doing something meaningful, crushing momentum until we conclude that we have developed yet another inadequate mechanism for holding Canadian businesses accountable. 


The third and final episode of our series looks at how the women who make our clothes wind up with such low wages while fashion brands continue profiting.

 

Take Action: Demand a Corporate Accountability Law

Call on Canada to enact robust and mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation now.

SIGN THE PETITION

Other Things You Can Do

The fashion industry is built upon a system of competition, exploitation, harassment and poor wages. That’s not feminist and we can do better.

These are some ways to push towards a fairer Canadian fashion industry:  

 

Dana Stefov is a Women's Rights policy and advocacy specialist at Oxfam Canada.

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