The Fashion Brands That Aren't Committed To Paying A Living Wage (And Those That Are)

Earlier this month, I returned from a trip to Bangladesh, where poverty is palpable at every turn, especially on the bustling streets of capital city Dhaka.

Now confronted by the hectic Christmas rush under full steam in Australia, it is difficult not to feel a bit jolted.

While in Dhaka, I spoke to women working in factories making clothing for leading global fashion brands -- women working extraordinarily long hours and still being paid poverty wages.

Women who, no matter how hard they work, struggle to pay for vital medical treatment for their health issues and whose commonly held concern was being unable to spend any time with their families.

Women who despite facing such challenging individual circumstances, struck me with their remarkable resilience and their genuine care for one another.

It is these women -- and millions of other workers like them -- who we want Australian shoppers to stand with this Christmas by demanding the big, iconic fashion brands they know and love do better. By demanding that these leading fashion brands -- those that are lagging behind -- make a real commitment to ensuring the payment of living wages to the workers who are making their clothes and remain trapped in the cycle of poverty.

Garment workers in a factory in Narayanganj, Bangladesh. (Image: Getty)

Over the last 20 years in the labour rights fight, we’ve seen that when customers make their voices heard, the brands respond.

Many well-known fashion brands have come far by bringing their factory lists out of hiding and joining safety initiatives such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, set up in the wake of the tragic Rana Plaza factory fire that claimed the lives of more than 1000 workers in Bangladesh in 2013.

The time has now come for the brands to do more: to make a real commitment to ensuring the payment of living wages to the workers making their clothes.

A living wage means enough money is earned in a standard week to cover basic essentials including food, housing, healthcare, clothing, transport, education and some money for unexpected events.

A living wage is not a luxury, rather the minimum that needs to be paid to allow workers to escape poverty.

Garment workers and relatives of the 1,135 victims of the Rana Plaza collapse hold a memorial in October 2013. (Image: Getty)

This year, our “Naughty or Nice” Christmas list has ranked household name brands on their progress to achieving this basic human right in their supply chains -- the payment of living wages.

The “naughtiest” brands on our list -- Just Jeans, Jay Jays, Peter Alexander, Rivers, Katies, W.Lane, and Myer -- are those that have not only failed to make a credible commitment to ensure the payment of living wages, but have also not even taken the step of becoming transparent and bringing their factory lists out of hiding.

Big W is on our “naughty” list for failing to make a credible commitment, while Zara (a Spanish brand)  is also naughty this Christmas -- although the global fashion giant has made a commitment on living wages, it has failed on the basic step of publishing the factories where it sources its clothes.

The “nice” brands -- including Best&Less, Bonds, City Chic, ELK, Kmart, Target, Cotton On, Country Road, David Jones, Gorman, Dangerfield, H&M, Review, Jeanswest, Forever New and Designworks -- are those that have made a real commitment to ensure the payment of living wages in the factories where their clothes are made. This public commitment includes a clear and appropriate definition of a living wage, and at least two to three key milestones towards achieving this and timelines to achieve the milestones.

It is the brands' responsibility -- and it is within their power -- to make the commitments needed to ensure the payment of living wages in their supply chains. The lucrative fashion industry turned over a staggering $23 billion in Australia last year.

David Jones made Oxfam's "Nice" list this year. (Image: AAP)

On my recent visit to Dhaka, the scale of the garment industry also overwhelmed me. I visited one noisy, lively factory where there were about 8000 workers, with another massive, similar-sized operation being built next door.

The sheer size of the garment sector in Bangladesh is evidence of why the payment of living wages is not only possible, but could have such enormous impact in allowing millions of workers who are making our clothes to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Research conducted by Deloitte Access Economics for Oxfam, "What She Makes", revealed on average, just four percent of the price of a piece of clothing sold in Australia goes to workers’ wages in Asian garment factories. But the same research found that even if big companies passed the entire cost of paying living wages to all workers on to consumers, this would increase the price of a piece of clothing sold in Australia by just one percent. That is just 10 cents extra for a $10 T-shirt.

Our ground-breaking research, "Made in Poverty", has also exposed a system of entrenched exploitation and widespread payment of poverty wages. Some of the sadly common realities are women who are unable to get treatment when they fall sick, workers who cannot afford to send their children to school, and families that cannot make their pay stretch far enough to put enough food on the table.

There’s no need to be a Grinch this Christmas -- buy the clothes you may want for a special get together and presents for your family, but while you do so, take a moment to tell the fashion brands you know and love to do better -- make a real commitment to a living wage to allow the women making our clothes to lift themselves out of poverty.

Oxfam Australia has contacted every brand on the list ahead of the release, explaining what we were asking them to do and why we care about living wages. We also had discussions and meetings with many of them. This continues the conversation we have been having on "What She Makes" for two years. Some brands have responded, some have not. Our project team has also looked at all of the brands’ public commitments before ranking them on the list.