Fighting the race to the bottom in the textile industry


South African textile workers at their fashion show

The recent factory fires in Pakistan have once again thrown the spotlight on terrible conditions in the textile industry. The workers who produce the clothes we wear work in slave like conditions, in dangerous factories, often without the right to organise.

Fashion is Brutal

On 11 September, over 300 workers were killed at two factory fires in Pakistan, 289 of them at Ali Enterprises in Karachi.

Ali Enterprises was making jeans for a German supplier. The factory was operating illegally, with unregistered workers and a fake audit certificate.

How is it possible that clothes made in these conditions are on sale in Europe? As this New York Times article demonstrates, the whole monitoring and compliance system is corrupt: weeks before the fire, Ali Enterprises received a clean bill of health from Social Accountability International, an industry-funded organisation with a remit to monitor factories for abuses.Clothing companies around the world rely on reports from organisations like SAI as evidence to consumers that their products are produced in decent conditions; the fires in Pakistan show that this is little more than a box ticking enterprise, and that industry can’t police itself.

We need union health and safety reps in these factories.

Neighbouring Bangladesh, on the other hand, has won the global race to the bottom in wages and conditions, with an average minimum wage of $37 or £23 per month.

Has this created the free market nirvana that advocates of ‘flexible’ labour promised? Hardly. While Bangladeshis on starvation wages churn out clothes for Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and H&M, state security suppresses workers’ protests in order to keep labour cheap for Western companies. This excellent New York Times article gives a thorough analysis.

Aminul Islam – murdered for organising workers

As part of this suppression of union organising, activist Aminul Islam was murderedsee our campaign page and help bring his killers to justice.

Premium brands behind the brutality

These clothes are made for Western markets, in Europe and North America. And just as factory owners in Pakistan and Bangladesh put pressure on their workers, so the corporations that own the brands put pressure on the factory owners. Fashion is a brutal world: advertising breaks down our confidence so we believe we need to constantly buy new clothes to make ourselves attractive, models are exploited, factory workers die in fires, and by far the greatest proportion of the value added – the profit – goes to the brand owners and retailers. Very little indeed makes it into the pockets of the workers who make these clothes.

Exploiting working class heritage

A fake “union made” label on a Lee shirt made in Bangladesh

The irony is that, having destroyed unionised work in developed countries, many clothing brands now fetishise working class fashion: Levi’s, Carrhart, Lee and many others make ‘work wear’ at a hefty price tag. Some Lee ‘heritage’ garments even include fake union labels, though it is a long time since the clothes were union made.

Towards sustainable fashion

However, there is another way. By unionising textile factories and working with activists across supply chains, we can drive up wages and conditions while producing quality clothing that people want to wear. This means work with unions as well as with consumer and sweatshop activist groups, to put consistent pressure – particularly on brand owners – to change the way they operate.

One example of a union creatively resisting the destructive dynamic in textiles is SACTWU. This South African union is the worlds’ biggest textile union. South Africa has a large textile sector, which has been militantly unionised for decades and has provided stable employment for generations of workers in some areas, particularly Cape Town. Over the past 10 years, the sector as come under tremendous pressure from cheap imports – from non-unionised factories, mostly in China – as well as from Chinese textile firms opening in South Africa.

Despite pressure from factory owners, SACTWU has worked hard to unionise Chinese-owned factories, and has had some success, recently recruiting its first Chinese shop stewards.

The union also hosts a remarkably innovative event to celebrate and build quality, sustainable jobs in the sector: it holds a fashion show, called the Spring Queen Festival, which has been running since the late 70s. Every year, tens of thousands of textile workers from hundreds of factories choose a ‘factory queen’. After a series of knockout events, a final is held at a major convention centre in Cape Town. 10 000 workers attend the event, making it the biggest fashion show in the world.

Originally, all clothes were designed, created and modelled by the workers themselves. Now the union is working with designers to promote quality local fashion, while the factory workers model and produce the clothing. The union is also highly strategic in its approach, working with industry to create a sustainable textile sector that provides quality jobs. As general secretary Ebrahim Patel said of the union’s involvement in Cape Town Fashion Week,

“Why does a trade union devote time and energy to fashion promotion? Our mandate has jobs at its heart: the quality of jobs and the quantity of jobs, more jobs and better jobs, as the best means to combat poverty and social disintegration. Fashion is a vehicle to that goal. Behind the fun, the glamour, the images, there is a serious business and a major employment opportunity and reality.”

What this all means practically that South African consumers are able to buy quality, union-made clothing at comparable prices to the sweatshop-produced clothing available in Europe and North America. Even premium global brands like Levi’s Jeans are union made locally, while Levi’s bought in North America or Europe are made in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Mexico and a host of other countries – generally in non-union factories.

This is the kind of creative approach that can begin to turn the industry around, and we need to build international partnerships to make this work.

There are signs of innovative work elsewhere: in the UK, the union Equity has formed a models’ union to fight the exploitation models often experience, and a number of campaign groups pressurise retailers and brands about their clothing and publish reports. You can find out which companies have signed Framework Agreements with the international union federation IndustriAll,  committing them to providing a living wage and decent conditions across the supply chain.

By coordinating our activities and working together across the whole industry – from consumers to factory workers and models – we can make a real difference.

Let’s keep quality jobs in fashion, and work to get real Union Made labels back onto our clothing.


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Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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