Promises are great. If they are kept. Swedish fashion giant H&M promised on 23rd November 2013, five years ago after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, in its “Roadmap towards a fair living wage” to have “pay structures in place to pay a fair living wage by 2018” to all its workers globally (at the time, around 850,000 people in 750 factories). But now, 2018 is almost over and this has not happened; the 'Roadmap' has since been removed from the company’s website. The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) checked the wages that factories making H&M’s clothes pay in Cambodia, India, Turkey and Bulgaria and found that in EU member state Bulgaria, only 9 percent of a living wage is paid.
“The factory referred to in the report mentioned was audited in May 2018 and at this time the investigation has shown no evidence of breaches of the statutory minimum wage. The same applies to the compensation of overtime. However, we know that overtime causes a problem in this particular factory - which has led to a corresponding action plan in the past,” commented H&M in a statement responding to CCC’s inquiry.
Minimum wage in Bulgaria, India, Cambodia & Turkey far away from living wage
According to CCC, the net wage of an employee at an H&M supplier factory in Bulgaria averages 98 euros per month, not even half of the legal minimum wage of 204 euros per month. And even if it were paid, it would not be enough to cover living expenses (see diagram). Because H&M does not mention that the legal minimum wage and a living wage are generally worlds apart - in Bulgaria as well as in the other above-mentioned manufacturing countries of the company. In hindsight, H&M’s promise may have been a bit too ambitious.
Activists don’t care about that - a promise is a promise. They want the apparel giant to keep its word and to actively do something against starvation wages. Thus, activists and workers around the globe are joining hands to demand living wages and fair employment conditions throughout the supply chain. Demanding “Turn around H&M”, protests have started on Black Friday and will continue throughout Cyber Week and end on 30th November. From Delhi to London, from Washington, DC to Zagreb and many cities in between, activists are staging often creative protests in front of H&M stores that include impromptu plays involving passersby.
Even in Europe, wages and working conditions leave much to be desired
The dire conditions extend not only to young EU member states in Eastern Europe or traditional manufacturing countries such as India, Cambodia and others, but also to countries such as Italy, founding member of the EEC, precursor of the EU. “At the huge warehouse where I work … the day shift started at 4.30 a.m. and we did not know at what time we would be allowed to leave. Sometimes it was 4 hours of work, sometimes 12 in a row, you never knew,” said a worker in a letter to colleagues in H&M’s supply chain according to CCC. The worker prefers to stay anonymous because XPO, the company running H&M’s logistic hub, filed a lawsuit against 147 workers and their union fighting for improved working conditions.
“H&M's current business model is squeezing workers at different levels of the supply chain. But seamstresses in garment factories, packers at logistic hubs and employees in retail shops all have the right to living wages and fair employment conditions,” says Deborah Lucchetti, spokeswoman of the Clean Clothes Campaign Italy.
Pledges become empty promises; responsibility is passed on
„It is important for the H&M Group that our products are manufactured under good working conditions. All our suppliers must sign our Code of Conduct, the so-called Sustainability Commitment, and comply with national laws. It is also important for us to keep track of whether our requirements are met or not,“ said H&M in a statement. But the company passes the buck when it comes to taking responsibility: “If we detect violations of any kind, we immediately take action and if suppliers fail to implement the necessary improvements in accordance with their own action plan, we ultimately end the business relationship.”
And this is the problem: Instead of terminating long-standing relationships with manufacturing businesses, H&M and similar companies that have the power to change the supply chain should review their profit margins and actively participate in achieving living wages. After all, it is about the truth, transparency and change.
“Workers revealed that H&M was nowhere near the payment of a living wage at its supplier factories ‑ to the contrary, many workers reported poverty wages and labour rights violations. We have every reason to believe that those findings reflect the broader reality: H&M took a lot of credit for its original commitment but has failed to deliver in the form of an actual living wage materializing in workers’ wallets,” said Bettina Musiolek of the Clean Clothes Campaign who coordinated the research.
We want to show that H&M is outwardly presenting itself as a trailblazer of green fashion. But that's not in relation to what's happening in reality, "explains CCC's communications coordinator Vivien Tauchmann, adding,"H&M is not an isolated case. Many companies produce under bad conditions outside of Europe, but also in Europe itself."Photos: H&M Facebook; CCC report: “Stitched Up: Poverty wages for garment workers in Eastern Europe and Turkey”