Mysterious messages about working conditions discovered in a Swansea store remind us that textile industry standards have changed little since the Rana Plaza disaster.
‘Primark, unlike other retailers who have admitted to a presence in the Rana Plaza factory, has contributed to the compensation fund.' Photograph: Darren Britton/Wales News Service Darren Britton/Wales News Service/Darren Britton/Wales News Service
It seems so unlikely as to be incredible: a cry for help sewn into a Primark dress. First one, now two Swansea shoppers have come forward and told the South Wales Evening Post that they found extra labels sewn into items bought last year. "Forced to work exhausting hours" read the first; "Degrading sweatshop conditions" says the latest, pictured in the 25 June edition of the paper.
Primark has promised to investigate, and may hope the labels will turn out to be a hoax. Perhaps they are a new form of direct action, carried out with a needle in the changing rooms – or even by a mole on the inside?
But two months after the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, when most of those injured and bereaved by the disaster are still waiting for compensation – though Primark, unlike other retailers who have admitted to a presence in the factory, has contributed to the compensation fund – the secret message hidden inside a piece of women's clothing is a startling image. Could a garment worker somewhere in the developing world really reach across the heads of managers, unions, manufacturers, governments, western multinationals and shopfloors into the wardrobe of an ordinary shopper, to make a complaint? And if so, what do they want us to do about it?
A memorial at the site of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse on 24 October 2013, the six-month anniversary of the disaster. Photograph: Afp/AFP/Getty
Improve their working conditions, is the obvious answer. But how? One anonymous senior executive from a big high street retailer recently told the Guardian that shoppers "don't care" about conditions, and research shows most "prefer inexpensive over respect for human rights". If consumers were more bothered about workers, goes this argument, the industry would progress.
Campaigners, including the designer Katharine Hamnett, call this a cop-out. Differences between retailers are proof that they, too, drive change. European brands have gone further than those in the US in their support for Bangladeshi trade unions in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza catastrophe, though Matalan and Benetton have yet to make any contribution to the compensation fund despite admitting links with the factory.
But it is true that the rise of ethical shopping, or what US sociologist Juliet Schor calls "conscious consumption", has made limited headway in fashion. It is possible to choose free-range over factory-produced eggs even in convenience stores; much harder to opt to pay a premium of a couple of pounds for a T-shirt that comes with ethical plus points.
In part this is down to the sheer complexity of the fashion supply chain. Perhaps the most poignant and ironic thing about the message in a Primark dress, is that as far away as the machine operators in the stitch-and-sew factories of Bangladesh and elsewhere might appear, they are far closer to us than most of the other millions of people involved in making our clothes
Thanks in part to the publicity surrounding the Rana Plaza disaster, we can at least imagine the men and women who sew them. But before a cotton dress is cut and stitched it is dyed and printed; before that it is woven from yarn into cloth; before that it is spun from raw cotton into yarn. And before that it is planted, picked, and ginned (or cleaned). Cotton is an agricultural commodity and the world's most important non-food crop, grown on all five continents and by some of the poorest people in the world.
Rescue workers look for trapped garment workers in the collapsed Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka on 26 April 2013. Photograph: Andrew Biraj/Reuters/Reuters
Long before we got to meet Dorset fishermen at the farmer's market, stories about where food comes from was part of the story advertisers told us. Think of the man from Del Monte, or the cows on Ben & Jerry's ice-cream. People like to see the name of the farmer who grew their carrots on the supermarket packaging, and picture pigs in fields rather than crates.
Fashion simply can't deliver this kick, or not without tremendous efforts on the parts of specialists such as Bruno Pieters, whose recently launched Honest By label provides details of exactly where and how each item was made. The story of textile production is the story of industrialisation, of thrilling technological innovation in the north of England. But it is also the story of slavery and the destruction of textile manufacturing in India, as Ian Jack wrote last week. It's no wonder this cry of rage from a garment factory, whoever put it there, pricks our consciences. Even if we can hardly begin to understand why.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia announced Thursday it will raise the minimum wage for clothing workers by 9.4 percent to $140 a month, hoping to ease tensions in the country's main export industry.
A Labor Ministry statement said the government is increasing the wages on instructions from Prime Minister Hun Sen after eight days of tense negotiations in a committee representing employers, workers and the government. The new wages take effect at the beginning of next year. The increase falls short of the $160 a month wage proposed by unions. Three years ago, a union campaign to double the then-minimum wage of $80 in the textile, garment and footwear industries resulted in clashes with police and a crackdown on public protests. A $100 level was set for 2014 and $128 this year but tensions over wages remained high.
In early 2014, at least four people were killed and more than 20 were injured when police outside Cambodia's capital opened fire to break up a protest by striking garment workers. The clothing and footwear industry is Cambodia's biggest export earner, employing about 700,000 people in more than 700 garment and shoe factories. In 2014, the Southeast Asian country shipped more than $6 billion worth of products to the United States and Europe.
But as in other developing countries in the region such as Bangladesh and Vietnam that rely heavily on their garment industries, wages in Cambodia remain low by international standards. "I am not satisfied with this new wage," said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, who took part in the negotiations. "I think the net salary of each garment worker should be at least $150 per month, not $140 as cited by the Labor Ministry."
The union had also rejected the 2015 minimum wage of $128 per month, but the labor movement in Cambodia remains weak. The union's rejection means little to the government and factory owners, who will simply go ahead and pay the new wage of $140. Because of that, workers often resort to street protests, which are unnerving for the government because the major unions are generally allied with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose political strength has been growing in recent years.
The Labor Ministry said that when other benefits are calculated, the workers will make an average of $157 to $168 monthly next year. In a statement, the International Labor Organization acknowledged the efforts by all parties to reach a consensus. "As wages gradually increase, it is important for the industry to improve overall productivity, and for garment buyers to examine their purchasing practices," it said.
Labor Minister Ith Samheng acknowledged that the new wage is not as much as workers had demanded, but noted that the majority of negotiators agreed to it.
"The new wage does not comply with the demands of all sides, but this amount is acceptable," he told reporters.