The human cost of Canadian fashion
Canadian brands are keeping the women who make our clothes in poverty.
Bangladeshi garment workers are paid as little as $0.60 CAD an hour – that’s not enough to live on. The women who make our clothes deserve a living wage so they can feed themselves and their families.
The women who make our clothes work long hours – often working overtime without pay and on occasion staying as late as 3:00am during busy shipment times or when brands press for tighter deadlines and cheaper prices. Many of them don’t see their families, living far away or spending long hours commuting. And yet, many fashion brands do not pay garment workers enough money to cover the basics of life – like food, water and decent shelter.
“I get paid [$148 CAD] per month. I usually work around 125 hours’ overtime each month, which brings up my total to around [$232-247 CAD]. That’s the only way we can survive,” said a factory worker in Bangladesh, who sends money to their father, mother and sister each month. "I spent [$46 CAD] in rent, sent [$77 CAD] to the village – how much does that leave me for food?"
Under COVID-19, the situation has been even more dire. One worker said the pandemic has dramatically increased the price of essential food items, and many workers wonder if they will die from starvation rather than the virus.
“The prices of goods have kept on increasing each week. Before, I could buy a sack of rice for [$19 CAD], now it costs [$31 CAD]. Lentils I could buy for [$0.77 CAD], now they have doubled in price. In fact, fish, vegetables – you name it, everything seems beyond reach.”
Too many women are spiraling into debt trying to feed themselves and their families. They live in extreme poverty and cannot afford healthcare or education for their kids. In fact, workers in Bangladesh often have to pull their children out of school to work in the garment sector just to cover necessities.
More than 90% of women workers in Bangladesh say that they can’t afford enough food for themselves and their families.
What She Makes is a campaign demanding Canadian fashion brands pay the women who make our clothes a living wage. Together, we’re calling on some of the biggest and best-known brands to take the necessary steps in building a fairer fashion industry – one that doesn’t exploit women or violate fundamental human rights.
Canadian fashion brands can make a commitment today! As a first step, Oxfam is asking Canadian brands to publicly commit to paying living wages and develop transparent and time-bound plans on how they will achieve this. We will then track their progress towards living wages.
A living wage is not a luxury or a privilege, it is a basic human right defined by the International Labour Organization for every working person around the world, including the women who make our clothes.
We are asking you to help stop Canadian brands from weaving poverty into the fabric of our clothes.
Together, we stand with the women who make our clothes and demand Canadian brands pay a living wage.
Make brands rethink #WhatSheMakes and sign our pledge now.
On average, roughly 3% of the cost of a standard t-shirt goes to the women who make our clothes. That’s 30 cents from a $10 shirt
Oxfam wants ALL Canadian fashion brands to pay the women who make our clothes a living wage – without downloading that cost to their customers – and to publish step-by-step strategies outlining how and when this will be achieved.
The fashion industry is raking in profits thanks to the women who make our clothes, and we believe the cost of paying a living wage can be easily absorbed in their supply chains.
Join us and the women who make our clothes by demanding that the brands you know and love uphold human rights and pay a living wage. We're starting by campaigning to make changes in 5 of the biggest and best-known Canadian fashion brands: Aritzia, Herschel Supply Company, Joe Fresh, lululemon and Roots.
Brands listen to YOU because you buy their clothes.
History shows that, when people care about the conditions in garment factories around the world, brands listen. After the tragic Rana Plaza factory building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, consumers demanded that companies act on factory safety. In response, garment retailers joined the ground-breaking Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, aiming to improve the safety conditions for garment workers.
Now, we’re pushing for transparency, accountability and living wages. You can use your voice and your consumer power to pressure brands to change their practices. Sign the pledge right now to take action on poverty in the fashion industry, and let the biggest and best-known Canadian brands know that the women who make our clothes must be paid a living wage.
Oxfam doesn’t believe the cost of a living wage should be put on consumers. Our opinion is that big brands make enough of a profit to pay a living wage, without creating higher prices and transferring the responsibility to the customer.
Oxfam does not advocate for boycotts, as this may result in workers losing their jobs. The garment industry is an important part of the economy in many low-income countries – and we want this to remain the case.
Instead, we’re asking that the jobs in these industries be fair and safe – and for people to be paid a living wage for the work they do. We urge you to use your power as a consumer to tell companies that you care about the workers producing their clothing and to ask them to pay a living wage.
We encourage you to think about ways that you can influence the practices of the brands you purchase. Want to really make an impact? Sign our Pledge.
Oxfam Canada is calling on ALL brands to ensure that the workers making their products are paid a living wage. As a start, we are working to influence five leading companies, chosen for their size, consumer demographics and market share in Canada. Working with some of the biggest and best-known brands in Canada, we can encourage a ‘race to the top’ on wages for the women who make our clothes. We look forward to engaging more companies in the future.
Yes! Oxfam Canada’s asks are aligned with many international legal instruments and standards, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Labour Organization Conventions, United Nation Guiding Principle on Business and Human Rights, OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector, Fair Labor Association Workplace Code of Conduct, Transparency Pledge, and Clean Clothes Campaign.
Oxfam Canada is also a member of the Pay Your Workers Coalition which came together at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to demand brands and retailers end wage theft and ensure garment workers are paid what they are owed. This includes paying an additional percentage on all orders to support a living wage as well as ensuring severance support is provided when workers have lost their job. We believe these actions are an easy first step that we encourage brands to incorporate into their published plans of how they will achieve paying a living wage in four years.
You can learn more about the garment industry and the women who make our clothes by checking out our Info Hub.
LIVING WAGE VS. MINIMUM WAGE
A living wage is not a luxury but rather a minimum amount that all working people should be paid to escape poverty. A living wage should be earned in a standard work week (no more than 48 hours) and cover a decent standard of living for the worker and their family. A decent standard of living includes food, water, housing, energy, healthcare, clothing, childcare, education and transportation. It also includes some money that can be put aside for unexpected events, such as a global pandemic. A living wage is a basic human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23.
Oxfam is calling on ALL Canadian fashion brands, starting with 5 leading Canadian fashion brands, to commit to paying the workers in their supply chain a living wage – without downloading that cost to their customers – and to publish a step-by-step strategy outlining how and when this will be achieved.
Brands have the power and the responsibility to ensure the women who make our clothes can lift themselves out of poverty.
The importance of paying a living wage to the women who make our clothes is now more critical than ever. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many garment workers lost their jobs and weren’t paid for their work, due to production disruption and brands withholding payments to factories. These workers had little or no savings and were not prepared for this unexpected event.
There are various ways to estimate the living wage for a specific area, but the two key methods most relevant to the garment supply chain are the Anker Method and the Asia Floor Wage. Both provide a clear pathway for businesses to move forward on living wages. Both methods of calculation are credible, with the Asia Floor Wage usually providing slightly higher figures due to differences in detail, approach and calculation.
The difference between Asia Floor Wage and Anker is due to the difference in assumptions and methodology. For example, Asia Floor Wage is based on a standard 3,000 calorie intake per day, family size of two adults and two children and one wage earner. On the other hand, Anker uses country or area-specific data and demographics to determine the calorie requirements, family size and number of earning members in a family.
Both methods have different strengths. The Asia Floor Wage sets a single wage level across Asia and calculates that wage across currencies. This method gives one ‘floor’, or minimum, under which no worker should fall. That removes the ‘race to the bottom’ on wages that we have seen across the region.
The Anker method is more complex, however it does give more accurate data based on specific regions and industries of work because it is calculated using costs from the specific region where it is being applied.
Whichever method companies use, there are some basic fundamentals that all methods have in common. A living wage must be paid using a working week of no greater than 48 hours, it must include enough money for decent and nutritious food, decent local housing and living conditions, enough for healthcare and educational costs, enough to support any dependents, and to allow some saving as well as discretionary spending.
Minimum wages are the legal, lowest wages allowed to be paid to workers, set by governments.
A living wage is the amount that is required to cover a decent standard of living for a worker and their family. It is earned in a work week of no more than 48 hours and includes enough money for decent and nutritious food, decent local housing and living conditions, healthcare, education and supporting dependents – and to allow for some savings and discretionary spending.
Originally, setting minimum wages in law was meant to ensure that workers were always paid fairly for their work – so that wages were enough for living healthily and in decent accommodations. In reality, many governments have entered a ‘race to the bottom’ on wages, trying to attract foreign companies by lowering wage levels and keeping them low. The result in many countries, including the key garment-producing countries of Asia, is that legal minimum wages are as low as a quarter of what a fair, living wage would be.
All human rights are equally important: no one should have to work in an unsafe workplace or put their health at risk to earn money, and everyone has the right to fair pay for a fair day's work. We believe focusing on a living wage is a crucial step towards protecting and empowering workers. This campaign helps to increase the bargaining power of workers and establish more long-term relationships in apparel supply chains, both of which would likely also lead to improved workplace safety and health.
The Global Living Wage Coalition calculated that the living wage for Dhaka, Bangladesh is $255 CAD per month. With the Asia Floor Wage calculation, it’s about $583 CAD. The existing monthly minimum wage is $124 CAD. The reality is that current wages in Bangladesh mean that the women who make our clothes are living in slums and consistently running out of food for themselves and their families. These wages push workers and families into debt and cause young women to sleep on concrete floors because a mattress is an out-of-reach luxury. All this while working six days a week, up to 12 hours a day. This needs to change.
Oxfam thinks we should shoot higher and fight for human rights.
It is practically impossible for the women who make our clothes to live decently on what they're making. Poverty forces them to live in slums, away from their families, working 12 hours a day and are falling into spiraling debt. No one has the right to take advantage of women in poverty and violate their basic human rights in the name of profit.
Globally, the garment sector is among the largest employers of women workers. The sector holds great power and potential to impact the lives of millions of women in low-income countries and, by extension, their families and communities.
MAKING CHANGE TOGETHER
Absolutely. If we can get even one or two major fashion brands to work towards a living wage in their supply chains, it will have a huge impact and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and their families.
Right now, the women making our clothes often work up to 12 hours per day, plus extra overtime, but are paid as little as 60 cents an hour. That means they don’t have enough money for decent housing, food or health care – let alone any savings. That's why we are working to change this.
There are many ways to hold brands accountable, and there is a role for everyone in that process. For consumers, let brands know you care about the people who make your clothes and want to know their full supply chain. Message them on social media, ask the staff at a store you're shopping at, email brands or ask in a website chat box – hey, you could even write a letter! The purpose is to let brands know that you care who makes your clothes and that they receive a living wage.
Brands are responsible for taking action. In fact, it’s their obligation to respect human rights under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In Canada, brands still operate on voluntary standards with little external regulation on their buying practices.
Through this campaign, we’re giving brands a chance to step up, be transparent and make a public commitment to pay the workers making their clothes a living wage. In order for Canadian fashion brands to respect human rights, they must change their practices. Brands can make a commitment today.
Oxfam will continue to pressure Canadian brands and hold them accountable. Stay tuned for the launch of our Brand Tracker as we begin to chart the progress of 5 of the biggest and best-known Canadian fashion brands.
Brands buy the clothing that oversea factories assemble. Apparel supply is a buyers’ market where purchasers have the upper hand over the factories. Brands have options to change factories, as there is no shortage of factories to supply products to them. In such a market dynamic, buyers hold strong influencing power over the supply chain. Buyer power to effect positive change can be even stronger when they collaborate with each other and join multi-stakeholder initiatives. One such example is Bangladesh's Accord on Fire and Building Safety, where major brands helped to make workplaces safer for the workers to prevent another disaster like the Rana Plaza tragedy.
Yes. We have contacted each of the 5 brands we're currently focusing on and communicated the need to commit to a living wage in their supply chains. Ongoing corporate engagement, backed with your voice, is how we aim to achieve a living wage for the women who make our clothes.
Poverty wages in the fashion industry is a global issue.
Oxfam has focused our campaign on supplier countries where wages are the lowest – and people are working long hours, but remain trapped in poverty.
Bangladesh is the first country we are spotlighting in this campaign, but it won't be the last. We chose Bangladesh first because it is the second-largest supply country for clothing in Canada, providing just over 12% of garments sold in Canada. We are researching other countries that supply clothing to Canada and will share our findings in the future.
The garment industry employs far more women than men. More than 70% of garment workers in China are women. In Bangladesh, the share is 80%, and in Cambodia it's as high as 90%.
Women garment workers are an especially vulnerable group: they are poor, sometimes illiterate and many began working as children, so they lack education. Single women in these societies face further levels of discrimination and marginalization, making it difficult to secure their rights. Women garment workers have few support systems and endure harassment and abuse from managers.
While it’s not just women who are affected by these human rights violations, women workers tend to be more vulnerable to these risks than men. That is why we’ve put women at the heart of this campaign.