Holding Corporations Accountable for a Living Wage in the Garment Industry

Trade unionist Anannya Bhattacharjee on the Global Supply Chain framework, the state of workers, and the campaign called the Asia Floor Wage Alliance that aims to hold global corporations accountable for the payment of a living wage in the garment industry – Newsclick and TRNN Joint Production


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Story Transcript

Benny Kuruvilla (Benny): Welcome to this joint production between the Real News Network and Newsclick. Asia produces more than 60% of the world’s garments with more than 50 million people directly employed. It is one of the most globalised industries in the world, dominated by Northern TNCs who organise production through a complex global supply chain framework. To speak about the global supply chain framework in garments, the state of workers, and what an interesting alliance called the Asia Floor Wage Alliance is doing, we are joined by Anannya Bhattacharjee, President of the Garment and Allied Workers Union, and also the international coordinator of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. Anannya, welcome to Newsclick. To start off, can you elaborate on Asia’s role in the global supply chain framework in garments? Why is that more than 60 percent of world production is centered in Asia?

Anannya Bhattacharjee (Anannya): As you were saying, Asia produces most of the world’s clothing. Garment is one of the oldest globalised industries in the world and it has roamed around the world looking for cheap labour. It has settled in Asia for some time now, sourcing most of the garments from Asia. And why is that? Because Asia actually provides phenomenal advantages to the garment industry. We are talking about the largest labour force in the world. We are also talking about the cost of labour which is pretty much at the bottom in the world, and at the same time you have access to raw materials, you have access to certain logistics, and law and order issues. So you have an environment that is especially good for this kind of business, and at a scale that is very difficult to replicate in any other continent.

Benny: How is the global production network or the global supply chain structured in these countries?

Anannya: As you can imagine, these countries have a domestic garment industry which caters to the population of the country. Though we have some retailers like Walmart, Carrefour and so on, for the most part, it is a brand dominated global supply chain. They source from supply factories in Asia. Within Asia, within a particular country say India or Bangladesh, the Supply factories which are selling to the brands may further sub-contract to factories that are doing specific tasks under their control. So you basically have a tier of sub-contracting with the lowest tier being home based workers.

Benny: As a trade unionist what are some of the issues that you grapple with in terms of workers’ issues?

Anannya: This is a global supply chain that has rampant labour violations. Basically, we are talking about an industry which is composed of workers who come from marginalised communities – marginalised in the sense that they are coming from displaced rural communities looking for jobs. Most of them are women. In the case of India which has caste issues, these are workers mostly from backward castes and from religious minority groups. Even though there are a lot of Hindus, there is a disproportionately large Muslim population in the garment work force. We are talking about workers who are much more vulnerable, and also a younger generation of workers who have not experienced unionism or collective work. We are talking about a workforce that is very vulnerable and therefore open to exploitation. So the global supply chain, in this case the brands, are generally looking for these types of labour forces in these various Asian countries.

Benny: You have said that it is spread across these countries in Asia, and because of the low wages and the sort of outsourcing framework, it is easy for brands to relocate if there is a campaign, for instance, to increase wages, and I think that is the philosophy that informs the creation of this international alliance. Can you take us through the history of how you created the Asia Floor-wage Alliance? Who are its constituents, and what has been the work done so far?

Anannya: Typically what they try to do is pit one country against another, saying so and so cost is a little bit cheaper, we’ll go there and so forth. What we have found is that when we try to push wages up – which are right now at poverty level wages – we are talking about, in some countries, starvation level wages which are not enough for a worker or a family to stay together. So what we find is that Asian workers are being pitted against each other across national borders when we try to raise these wages. What we did was that we looked at Asia and Asian labour as a block since most of the garments are coming from Asia. We studied the garment producing countries and what we found is that the wages that the workers are getting, more or less fall within a bandwidth that is negotiable between us. If all of us in Asia get together and demand a common living wage, it is not possible for one country to be pitted against another. In other words we are building unity among labour and unity of demand at a regional level. Demanding an Asian living wage would be the way to bargain in the global garment supply chain. In other words, what we are saying is that bargaining within a national framework is not working as far as wages go in the garment global supply chain. Thus we are developing a global industrial strategy for bargaining. Global because the supply chain is global, and industrial because we are saying that this is not for one brand – H&M or GAP – to fulfill. We want to set the industrial conditions so that Asian workers producing garments get a common living wage.

Benny: So it is not just a floor wage but a living wage. How is a living wage different from the minimum wage? What components go into elaborating what a living wage is?

Anannya: It has become common for people to talk about minimum wages. But minimum wage is not different from minimum living wage. However, we are bringing back minimum living wage which was the original concept, and what we are saying is that the Asia Floor Wage is setting the minimum living wage or a floor for a minimum living wage. We are saying that minimum living wage should not go below this; it could go above. So it is not a ceiling but a floor.

Benny: Now you have created an alliance and you have articulated what a living wage is. What has been the political response of other unions? Recently you were at the ILO in Geneva which had its International Labour Congress, where there was a general discussion on global supply chains. Can you speak about what happened at the ILO? What was the response of the industry, of governments, and especially the Indian government?

Anannya: When we first announced the Asia Floor Wage to the brands, we demanded that the brands pay a part of the Asia Floor Wage. Our position is that supply factories in our countries have to obey the laws, so they must pay the statutory national minimum wage. But since the Asia Floor Wage is higher than the national minimum wage, the brands are responsible for the difference between the statutory minimum wage and the Asia Floor Wage. That gap has to be paid by the brands. It is very important that we define the power that we are bargaining from, we are bargaining with the brands. I am also a local trade unionist. This is not like bargaining with a local employer. We are bargaining with who we see as the primary economic power in the global supply chain. They control the entire chain. They control the working conditions. So we want them to pay the difference between the statutory minimum wage and the Asia Floor Wage. When we pose it this way, supply factories do not typically have a problem with it because we are not asking them to pay for it. However, when we ask the supply factories why they don’t work with us to demand this of the brands – after all it is not from their pocket, it is from brand’s pocket – what we typically hear is that they are really afraid of losing their contracts. We have also not yet been able to involve the government in a meaningful way in this discussion. The primary reason is that in these developing countries, FDI – foreign direct investment – is like a religion. Without foreign direct investment, what we are told is that you cannot have development. This foreign direct investment must come without any control. They must have complete freedom to play in the national borders. With this mentality the government has actually not been a great ally. However, it is our claim that if brands take the initiative and say that they stand by their code of conduct – all these brands have a code of conduct about decent work – and when the rubber hits the road they should be ready to pay what would be a few cents of increase per piece of garment which can easily come from their massive profits, or even a very negligible raise in retail price which customers are willing to bear. This survey has already been done with customers. So if brands kick in the difference, then this is a much doable proposition. It would override supplier factory’s fears of losing contracts and also neutralise governments who think that foreign direct investment need have no morality, they can just come in and do what they want. We therefore focus on the fact that in a global economy, in the global supply chain, the TNCs as you call them, the brands in this case have the power to do the right thing. Asia Floor Wage Alliance also released about 5 to 6 reports during this period where we got a lot of media coverage, and we also released a first time documentary on the garment industry on our strategy which was covered by the media. We were in business pages, industry publications, in newspapers all over the world, and it reached the halls of the ILO. The employer groups had to defend itself against some of the claims that the newspapers reported based on our reports. So all in all, I would say that we came up with a statement from the ILO that now gives a mandate for how to move forward.

Benny: The task is cut out for the Asia Floor Wage campaign for widening the ambit of support that you get, from the Northern unions, the ILO, and other interesting frame works, for instance, the ASEAN or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. We wish you the best in advancing this important initiative. Thank you.


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