As Living Wage Week gets underway, lawyers from The Circle NGO are focusing in on the fashion industry. We look into the key takeaways from the second ‘Fashion Focus’ report, which outlines the legal argument and actions to ensure garment workers a living wage.
Images: Nader Elgadi
A salary sufficient to provide a decent standard of life, the right to a living wage has been recognised as a fundamental human right for the past century. So, when we look at the garment industry as it operates today, it’s a shock to see that millions of workers are paid a mere fraction of what can be fairly judged as adequate.
This forms the focus of the latest work by The Lawyers Circle, a group within The Circle NGO, that marks a first in the history of workers’ wages by looking to legislation in order to improve the situation. Their newly published second report outlines progressive and thorough proposals for legal regulation that would enforce transparency across garment supply chains, setting out the framework for garment workers to be paid a living wage.
Jessica Simor QC, one of the masterminds behind the report, states that “labour should not just ensure survival, it should sustain decent lives.” However, according to research published earlier this year by Clean Clothes Campaign, no major global clothing brand has actually been able to show that garment workers in Asia, Africa, Central America and Eastern Europe are being paid enough to escape poverty. Without legislation or obligation in place, even businesses and brands who do want to pay their workers a living wage are discouraged from doing so by the cost disadvantage they might face.
In order to create level pegging between companies, the Fashion Focus: Towards A Framework For A Living Wage report puts forward that the responsibility for fair salaries should fall on all retail companies and importers, meaning that the same costs would be paid by everyone. Where voluntary codes have fallen short in the past, the new legislative proposal would use financial incentives to enforce the payment of a living wage to employees as fines would be imposed on companies shown not to comply.
“We are clear that voluntary codes have not worked and that we must now have a legislative solution that creates some kind of level playing field for garment retail companies,” explains Jessica. Livia Firth, a founding member of The Circle, adds that “all our life we are regulated by the law; there is a law for everything – but when it comes to the living wage, this issue has never been explored from the legal point of view.”
Although the scope of the problem is not just confined to the fashion industry, the sector’s significant size within the global economy means that progress made on wages and working conditions could operate as a positive force across industry as a whole. “Our belief is that the fashion industry, as one of the largest global players, can step forward and lead the way to lift millions of lives out of poverty and change our attitude to global labour,” states Jessica.
The Living Wage Symposium, November 8th
The report looks to actions already taken by the EU in order to identify rationale for legislation, such as that which is already in place for conflict minerals and the food supply chain. It also considers the methods of influencing and regulating behaviour outside of the EU, to make the case that imposing obligations on companies in order to reverse the race to the bottom and pay a fair wage is not only possible, but urgently necessary.
At the Thomson Reuters Trust Conference this week, Jessica said: “We have long accepted that it is morally reprehensible to sell human beings – human lives should never be for sale. But we seem conveniently to forget that precisely the same must apply to human labour – just as people cannot be sold, so their labour should not be sold at the lowest price irrespective of the consequences for those people. The price of labour must reflect the value and dignity of every human life.”
In the words of Francois Zimeray, Avocat á la Cour d’Appel de Paris, Former Ambassador of France for Human Rights and Former Member of the European Parliament: “The challenge is to keep moving forward and create a global awareness so as to move from Corporate Social Responsibility to one where we all truly have Social Responsibility […] There is a tiny margin between ignorance and indifference and between indifference and complicity. I don’t want to be an accomplice and nor should any of us.”
Find out about the 2017 Fashion Focus Report.
Read Eco-Age X Th Circle’s Difficult Conversations series, focusing on some of the most difficult global topics affecting women worldwide including FGM, human trafficking and reporting from conflict zones.