Bangladeshi garment worker Shima, 26, at home in Dhaka. She lost her foot to infection and now wears a prosthetic. An Oxfam report found many women who work for Australian brands are unable to feed their families or get treatment when ill. Photograph: Fabeha Monir/OxfamAUS
Women in Bangladesh and Vietnam making clothes for the $23bn Australian fashion industry are going hungry because of wages as low as 51 cents an hour, an Oxfam report has found.
The aid group interviewed 470 garment workers employed at factories supplying brands such as Big W, Kmart, Target and Cotton On, and found 100% of surveyed workers in Bangladesh and 74% in Vietnam could not make ends meet.
“The investigation has uncovered the widespread payment of poverty wages and the impact this is having on the lives of the workers, mainly women, making the clothes Australians love to wear,” Oxfam Australia chief, Helen Szoke, said.
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“Women who are unable to get treatment when they fall sick, workers who cannot afford to send their children to school, families that cannot make their pay stretch to put enough food on the table, people sleeping on floors in overcrowded houses, spiralling debts, mothers separated from their children – these are just some of the common realities of the failure of big brands to ensure the payment of living wages.”
Garment workers on their way to work in Dhaka. Of workers surveyed by Oxfam in Bangladesh, 100% said they could not make ends meet. Photograph: Fabeha Monir/Oxfam Australia
Nine out of 10 workers interviewed in Bangladesh said they could not afford enough food for themselves and their families and were forced to skip meals or go into debt. In the same country 72% of workers interviewed could not afford medical treatment, compared with 53% in Vietnam. In Bangladesh, one in three workers interviewed was separated from their children because of inadequate income.
The report details the plight of a Bangladeshi 21-year-old single mother, Tania, who works up to 12 hours a day in a factory supplying clothes to brands including Kmart and earns $169 a month, or about 55 cents an hour.
She was forced to send her baby back to her village to be cared for by her parents and sees her daughter only twice a year.
Bangladeshi garment worker Tania holds the only photograph she has of her daughter, who she only sees twice a year. Photograph: Fabeha Monir/OxfamAUS
Another worker profiled, Chameli, earns about 51 cents an hour for her work as a helper in a factory in Bangladesh that supplies clothes to brands including Big W. Her family cannot afford to send any of her three daughters to school and the eldest, aged 14, has also started working in a garment factory.
The family of five live in a crowded compound on the outskirts of Dhaka in a 3.6 metre by 2.4 metre room, where the two youngest girls sleep on the floor.
Chameli and her daughters live in a 3.6 metre by 2.4 metre room in Dhaka. Photograph: Fabeha Monir/OxfamAUS
Deloitte Access Economics estimates that on average just 4% of the price of a piece of clothing sold in Australia goes towards the wages of the workers who made it.
Oxfam said if brands absorbed the cost of paying a living wage, it would amount to less than 1% of the garment price.
The research found practices by Australian companies were contributing to driving wages down.
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“They undertake fierce price negotiation, often jump between contracts instead of working with factories over the long term, squeeze lead times for orders and operate with a separation between their ethical and standards staff and their buying teams, who negotiate directly with factories,” the report said.
“One factory owner even reported the extensive measures a company had taken to keep their clothing safe in case of a fire, but a lack of interest from the very same company in fire safety measures for the workspaces where people sew their clothes.”
Szoke said Oxfam was not advocating boycotts of brands, but encouraged shoppers to contact fashion retailers via social media to demand living wages for garment workers.
Cotton On, Kmart, Target and City Chic have recently announced plans to achieve a living wage for the workers in their supply chains.