Livia Firth at the Trust Conference 2017

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We have long been in search of a breakthrough around slave labour and labour rights injustice in the global garment industry – and there is a very strong feeling that we have been debating, negotiating and discussing the basic of human rights – the right to a living wage – for far too long.

The readymade garment (RMG) industry stands as the poster child for exploitation. In an increasingly globalised world, companies source goods from factories where people work in conditions and for wages that would be illegal, and likely criminal, in the main market places for those goods.

As members of the The Circle, a women advocacy group founded by Annie Lennox, when we had the opportunity to put this issue in front of The Lawyers’ Circle – a network of high profile, experienced legal professionals using their skills to progress social justice – we grabbed it with both hands.

They did not disappoint. The Lawyer’s Circle has spearheaded a substantive research project taking evidence from 15 major garment producing countries across the globe, via a network of legal professionals based in those countries. Using this evidence, and working with industry experts and committed campaign organisations (such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and Trust Law), a team headed by Jessica Simor QC, one of the UK’s leading specialists in human rights and public law joined the dots between international law, the fashion industry and human rights.

Our driving motivation was the fact that a failure to implement living wage condemns a workforce of millions to live a life that cannot be deemed decent. Are they technically “slaves”? I would say loud and clear YES, as on top of being victims of bond labour, forced labour, trafficking – even the ones who go to work willingly every day have no other choice: they are enslaved in a circle of poverty they will never come out from.

I want to remind you that, as a society, we shall soon mark the centenary of the end of World War One. Among one hundred years of memory the fact that this marks a seismic shift in terms of labour law, might go unnoticed:

But in 1919 the idea that there was a relationship between poverty and peace had major traction. Indeed when 32 countries met in Paris to broker that peace, the protection of wages and the status of labour represented a critical issue, as it does today. Here we see the founding of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the first legislator advancing a just relationship between workers and employees and based on the founding principle that ‘labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or as an article of commerce’.

That same principal was incorporated, under Article 427 of the Treaty of Versailles. And as the complex conference progressed, a delegation from Paraguay drew on this absolute rejection of labour commodification to propose the setting of minimum wages.

This backdrop is not just a historical footnote, it serves to remind us all that for more than a century states have recognised the right to wages sufficient to support the basic needs of a family. These are known as ‘living wages’, what we call an ‘adequate minimum wage’. States have recognised this right through legislation and in some instances, even by way of Constitutional guarantees.

How is it then that we find ourselves at a point where we are experiencing a revival of the sort of exploitation that those states participating in the 1919 peace conference agreed to consign to history?

In fact this exploitation of labour has become part of the global economic model while the fashion industry is eye- wateringly remunerative with global revenues of 3 trillions .

Engineering a breakthrough and making this regulation work is therefore absolutely necessary when it comes to living wage in the garment industry. To date efforts to prevent labour exploitation have tended to focus on non- binding measures, in other words voluntary codes and initiatives designed, implemented and monitored by the retail companies who control the supply chain and, normally developed in response to negative publicity generated by investigations carried out by NGOs or media. To put it bluntly, this strategy is not working. There has been limited impact on labour conditions in general and virtually zero success in improving wages.

The aim of the Lawyers Circle report was therefore to set the debate on living wages in the garment industry within a clear, legal framework.

The report – which is very comprehensive and I hope you will all download from The Circle website OR ask me or Jessica Simor about – looks at 15 Ready Made Garment countries and collected country-specific data in order to ask the question of whether minimum wage legislation in those states provides for a ‘living wage’. The conclusions from each allow us to consider the premise, namely that as a matter of international law, States are obliged to guarantee the fundamental right to a minimum wage, meaning a ‘living wage’

There are now strong grounds for arguing that countries that fail to ensure that workers within their jurisdiction are paid a minimum living wage and legally protected from abuse and exploitation, are acting unlawfully in international law and can lawfully be subjected to trade sanctions or restrictions on imports.


– This report concludes that a minimum wage, meaning a ‘living wage’, now constitutes a fundamental human right, which States are accordingly obliged to guarantee. In the light of that, we consider that, where companies choose to produce or source their goods from States where that fundamental right is not guaranteed, as a matter of law or practice, they must, as a minimum, themselves take steps to ensure that the people who make those goods are guaranteed this right. That is a responsibility that falls on the relevant company, it being aware that the State does not ensure the right.

– The report also concludes that if the commitment from fashion brands is real, the change can and must be made now. A large number of companies have already made a commitment to pay a living wage. However, they have generally done so only in relation to the future. This report concludes that that is not enough.

– In that regard, the report notes that very large companies with enormous turnovers and profits frequently state in their published codes of conduct/due diligence and sustainability reporting that they pay the ‘national minimum wage’. In the context of garment manufacturing in the main RGM countries, they do this knowing that that minimum wage comes nowhere close to a living wage.

Such companies are therefore fully aware that their goods are produced in breach of fundamental rights and established international labour standards; that they are the product of exploitation. Any company that claims it satisfies human rights and international labour standards by paying the minimum wage in a country where that wage comes nowhere close to a living wage, has necessarily therefore failed in its duties to ensure such compliance. Put simply, it is aware of its non-compliance.

    This report does not accept the argument by companies that it is not practically possible for them to ensure that a living wage is paid. Paying the legal minimum wage cannot be a legitimate excuse for failure to ensure that such a wage is at least arguably a ‘living wage’. It is clearly open to large companies either to source their goods only from States that ensure that their legal minimum wage is a living wage (and provide for enforcement), exercising sufficient due diligence to prevent sub-contracting. Or alternatively, to open up their own production units in countries where the legislation provides inadequate protection, and thereby ensure that they are able to pay the people who make their goods a living wage.

    Lack of clarity or consensus on precisely how a ‘living wage’ should be calculated cannot be a legitimate justification for paying wages that on no calculation could be said to constitute a living wage. We do not accept the arguments made that – as it is not possible to agree precisely how a ‘living wage’ should be calculated – this is justification not to pay a living wage.

    So – by highlighting the vast difference in most RGM countries between the legal minimum wage and a living wage, this Report concludes:

    First, that it is not good enough for manufacturers or retailers simply to say that those who produce their products are paid ‘the minimum wage’ guaranteed in the relevant country. Where the ‘minimum wage’ does not come close to ‘a living wage’, such a claim is an admission that the company’s goods are produced in breach of fundamental rights and international labour standards.

    Secondly, in the near future, some enforcement/control mechanism is needed to ensure that producers/retailers who choose to use labour in countries where the minimum wage is in no sense a living wage, take all reasonable steps to ensure that the workers, who produce the goods that they sell, are paid a living wage. While self-regulation should be enough, in reality, it has manifestly proved ineffective.

    This report is a groundbreaking tool to inform advocacy at both national and international level and to push for concrete and effective action.

    Legislation is only half the story; the inadequacy of enforcement being another significant hurdle and this report represents a first step.

    Join us tomorrow at 8am for a roundtable moderated by Lucy Siegle, broadcaster and journalist, Sioned Jones, head of The Circle, Katherine Soanes (one of the lawyers who drafted the report) and Kerry Stares (Global Head of Legal at Thomson Reuters).

    You need to join our next phase of the report – where the four major stakeholders (business, governments, NGO and civil society) come together to help develop policy for using international mechanisms, including trade agreements, to enforce the right of garment workers worldwide to receive a living wage.

    We can’t be here next year discussing the same old things – we need both your financial support and your manpower (womenpower!) resources to help to GET. IT. DONE.