Garment workers in Bangladesh make merely 0.6% of a €29-product in total earnings, well below the living wage, a recent report from Accenture and the World Economic Forum highlights. While a business case can be made for improving conditions, the report highlights that the human rights frameworks lay out an obligation on corporations to make sure every worker in their supply chain is paid a living wage, trumping other considerations.
The supply chains of multinational companies have the power to affect both the environment and local economies. These effects may be positive or negative, with market forces and the companies’ commitments to sustainable and ethical supply chains defining of the consequences. In their recently released report ‘Beyond Supply Chains Empowering Responsible Value Chains’, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Accenture consider the business case as well as the ethical standards for sustainable supply chain management.
The conceptualised phenomenon of sweatshops has been around since the 19th century and describes a subcontracting system in which the middlemen earns profits from the margin between the amount they received for a contract and the amount they pay to workers. Workers, who receive minimal wages for excessive hours working under unsanitary conditions, were said to have ‘sweated’ this margin.
Today sweatshops are located far off shore, with particularly the ‘exploitation’ of garment production in Bangladesh still supporting the existence of the phenomenon. In an economic analysis, the research finds that garment workers in Bangladesh earn a mere 14% of the living wage*, with no change seen between 2001 and 2011. India has seen wages grow for garment from 20% in 2001 to 23% to 2011 – however, it will take a further 122 years before workers earn a living wage. China has seen the most sustained and real effects of globalisation, with a garment workers’ wage increasing from 16% of the living wage in 2001 to the 36% in 2011. This means that with sustained growth, in 12 years the average worker will enjoy a living wage.
Garment producers are not only failing to pay their workers a living wage, they also fail to pay the minimum wage as set by local authorities. In Bangladesh the minimum wage in set at 19%, however, the average worker earns 14% of the living wage. In India there is a disadvantage of 3% and in china of 10%. The below poverty wages that garment workers in Bangladesh (around 85% are women) are subjugated to, in often dangerous conditions, continues to be an issue faced by the lowest level workers in emerging markets.
The report highlights that “to break the status quo, companies and their sub-suppliers need to gain clarity on where ‘the buck stops’ when it comes to fair wages.” Governments and businesses need to set and comply with standards on basic conditions. While a business can be made to define a framework of standards, the report also considers the obligation placed on both governments and workers in terms of a framework that defines human rights. According to the researchers, earning a living wage is a human right under Article 23/3 of the Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” The obligation is not merely on governments, with the UN Guiding Principles laying out a framework that defines the corporate responsibility to protect human rights.
In terms of the relation to supply chain management, the onus to protect human rights is in the hands of the corporation and not its sub-contractors. Corporations are committed to “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” As such, a garment brand is responsible for making sure the sub-contractors from whom they source products is treating their workers according to their human rights.
Ability to pay
In terms of a breakdown of the share value of the products produced by workers, in this case a T-Shirt from Bangladesh sold in Germany, workers receive 0.6% of the price paid by the consumer. The factory (sub-contractor) ‘sweats’ 4% of the garment for itself, while the brand ‘sweats’ 12,5% as profit. The retailer takes 42.6% of the price. Without even increasing the sale price to further compensate the worker, there appears room within the breakdown to ‘reallocate’ some of the profit to the worker in line with human rights obligations on every part of the value chain of the product as a whole.
Other measures that may be taken to comply with the Declaration of Human Rights, is to make the supply chain transparent or to take the publicly commitment of working on the promotion of living wages towards realisation.
* Living wage as defined by the Asia Floor Wage: PPP $725 in 2013. Calculated for a worker to be able to support himself and either one adult or two children.