Sam Tarling/Oxfam

What She Makes: The True Price of Fashion

By Dr Helen Szoke, Chief Executive, Oxfam Australia​

The Australian fashion industry was worth almost $23.5 billion in 2018 — a staggering amount. But a system of entrenched exploitation and the widespread payment of poverty wages is denying the workers making our clothes the opportunity for decent lives.

The Australian fashion industry was worth almost $23.5 billion in 2018 — a staggering amount. But a system of entrenched exploitation and the widespread payment of poverty wages is denying the workers making our clothes the opportunity for decent lives.

Chameli, her husband and their three daughters live in a stuffy and cramped single room measuring less than nine square metres. Two of the girls must sleep on the floor. Chameli works in a factory in Bangladesh that supplies clothing to Australian household name department store, Big W. Despite working in the industry for six years, Chameli takes home as little as $128 a month. Even when she works overtime — as late as 3:00am at least once a week during busy shipment times — the most she earns is $165 a month. Her average rate of pay is about 51cents an hour.4,5 The family has often been saddled with debt, forced to borrow money after Chameli’s four-year-old son tragically drowned and her husband had a heart attack. Battling to afford the basics, the family cannot afford any of their daughters — aged 5, 12 and 14 — to attend school. Recently, Chameli and her husband were forced to make a painful decision to ensure the family could better meet their needs. They sent their teenage daughter to follow the path of her mother and work in a garment factory.

Based on hundreds of interviews with workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam, new research by Oxfam Australia lays bare the fact current garment sector wages trap workers and their families in a cycle of poverty. The first in-depth investigation of its kind into the supply chains of big Australian brands, this report exposes the hardships of everyday life for the workers, mainly women, who are an essential part of the industry. The report also examines the pressures placed on factory operators and owners by Australian-based brands to keep costs low — and in turn, keep wages at levels that deny workers and their families’ decent lives.

Oxfam, together with the Bangladesh Institute for Labour Studies and the Institute for Workers and Trade Unions in Vietnam, has interviewed more than 470 workers across Bangladesh and Vietnam for this study. All of them were part of Australian clothing supply chains at the time of interview, employed in garment factories that supply at least one iconic Australian clothing brand.

This investigation reveals that the problems created by poverty wages in the garment industry are not isolated incidents. Key findings from the research found:

• Nine out of ten workers interviewed in Bangladesh cannot afford enough food for themselves and their families, forcing them to regularly skip meals and eat inadequately, or go into debt.

• 72% of workers interviewed in Bangladesh factories supplying to major brands in Australia, and 53% in Vietnam, cannot afford medical treatment when they get sick or injured.

• 76% of workers interviewed in Bangladesh factories supplying to major brands in Australia have no running water inside their home, and more than 40% in Vietnam reported worrying about having to use well or rain water.

• In Bangladesh, one in three workers interviewed are separated from their children, with nearly 80% of those cases due to a lack of adequate income.

To turn this issue around, the first step is for Australian brands to commit to a clear strategy and timeline that will help guarantee the payment of living wages to the workers making their clothes. Therefore, Oxfam is calling for a system-wide commitment from Australian brands with the power to change their practices will turn this around

Women like Chameli have a right to be able to afford food, beds and education for their children. She cannot afford to wait any longer.

Read the full report here Made in Poverty: The True Price of Fashion​

To find out more about Oxfam’s work with the garment sector on living wage and labour rights in both Vietnam and Bangladesh, please contact Alex Lankester

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