#SustainabilitySeries: Ways to improve working conditions of garment factory labor
Textile & Fashion industry sustainability is under intense spotlight. Most of the fashion product sales happen in the developed world — with USA and Europe accounting for just under half of global sales by value — but overwhelming majority of the cotton farmers and the bulk of global production of textiles and ready-made garments happens in the developing world.
While discussing any issue related to fashion supply chain, it is important to be reminded that the textile and apparel industry is a very important contributor to the world economy. The industry has one of the largest, longest and complicated global supply chains spreading to every single country on the planet. Global apparel consumption is estimated to be around US$1.8 trillion making it around 2.3% of global GDP. The global demand is forecast to grow at an annual rate of 5% per year as markets in China and other emerging countries expand.
The industry contributes significantly to export revenues of several countries: for example nearly 85% of export earnings of Bangladesh comes from ready made garments exports.
It is also one of the world’s largest employers as a sector. The industry employs between 60 to 75 million people globally. In India the textile & apparels sector is the second largest employer after the agriculture sector.
Apparel Cut & Sew Production is the most labor intensive part of the process
Cut & sew operations are labor intensive and are performed primarily in low wage countries. While there are several centers in developed countries closer to the markets, but there contribution to the overall production is minuscule. China has traditionally accounted for lion’s share of the operations but more than 50 other countries have substantial establishments of apparel manufacturing.
Spotlight on Health & Safety of factory workers
Work in the garment factories are sites for a complex array of health and safety concerns. Garment factory workers who operate sewing machines perform precise and repetitive tasks, frequently for 10–12 hours a day, and for six days a week. The workers are usually seated at flat, non-adjustable workstations where they rapidly sew, cut, and trim — visually demanding tasks in workplaces where the quality of the lighting varies widely. The workplaces are commonly subject to poor ventilation, intense heat, clouds of airborne fiber dust, cluttered workspaces, and unsanitary factory conditions.
Various studies have shown that garment workers often suffer from back, kidney, and musculoskeletal problems resulting from extended exposure to fabric dust and chemicals and long periods of sitting and repetitive motion.
Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation
Workers are perpetually exposed to cotton dust in garment factories during fabric cutting, weaving and knitting. As they handle and sew fabrics, lint and other small particles are released into the air and into their lungs. Research has persistently demonstrated the relationship between garment work, endotoxin exposure, and higher levels of respiratory illness, including some forms that can go undiagnosed.
Proper ventilation can efficiently reduce the presence of dust in workspaces; however most garment factories provide either substandard ventilation equipment or none whatsoever. Many factories provide workers with protective masks which reduces worker exposure to endotoxins but if often discomforting when working for long hours in string of hot days.
Garment workers, especially those who spend years sewing 10–12 hours a day and 5–6 days a week in under lit workplaces, often complain about their vision. Several surveys have reported widespread instances of lighting at garment factory worksites as insufficient.
Proper workplace lighting, especially for precise manufacturing like garment work, is essential. A study by the International Labour Organization emphasized the importance of adequate and local lighting for up-close work, so that light shines directly on the task and not into the worker’s eyes.
One of the most frequently expressed concern is about workers being exposed to erratic temperatures at workplace. Many workers face heat-related discomfort and illness, and is particularly more challenging for garment factories because workers are in tightly enclosed workspace, laboring long hours over strings of hot days in a row, with little to no ventilation or air conditioning.
Several factories, especially in countries where the industry has grown more recently, are housed in warehouse-like facilities. Such facilities are especially susceptible to extreme heat, particularly during the spring and summer months when clothing production for the fall and winter seasons is at its peak.
Toilet Hygiene and Sanitation
Surveys and studies regularly find workers reporting inadequate number of toilets and even when they are available, bathrooms are generally soiled and unmaintained. There is a common tendency among the workers to reduce their toilet visits not only because of their uncleanness, but also because they fear pay reductions for taking too long for bathroom breaks. This practice is know to lead to urinary infections and other, more serious, health consequences.
Many surveys report of garment workers not having fresh potable water at their workplace. In several instances while the water is available, it was not clean and distributed in old, dirty containers. As a result many workers bring their own water and reduce consumption which is a issue particularly in hot seasons.
Disease Vectors and Pests
Surveys often find that workers report presence of rodents and cockroaches in the workplace. Beside pests, there is additional concern about exposure of workers to indoor mold, which is directly related to a variety of health effects such as allergic reactions, skin irritation, coughing and headaches.
So what holds the problem from being fixed ?
Over last few years, there has been a significant increase in awareness of this issue globally including among consumers. The consumer groups as well as several human rights organisations have been putting pressure on the brands and retailers to provide visibility on the working conditions. But so far, not much has changed.
Why is it so? We cannot approach this problem with naivete and need to be cognizant of the reality of economics of the industry. Fast Fashion industry thrives on promise of cheap and disposable, trendy clothing. US Bureau of Labor statistics shows that consumer spending on apparel as a percentage of total consumer expenditure has more than halved from 5 per cent in 1987 — apparel being the the only major consumer spend category to fall over this same period. This is when the frequency of purchase has gone up 60%.
Brands have their own economics and so far there are no signs of propensity to pay higher price for clothing labeled as sustainable. There are many reasons for that, and not the least being lack of trust on such labels. The result is that brands continue to put pressure on factories to produce cheaper and faster.
Better Buying conducts regular research on industry buying practices by collecting information anonymously from apparel brands and their suppliers, with an aim to improve purchasing practices in supply chains globally. It asks suppliers to rate their apparel brand customers on issues such as planning and forecasting, cost and negotiation, and sourcing and order placement. The latest Better Buying index found suppliers in the lowest cost locations being pressured for further lower prices, with 38% of Bangladesh suppliers reporting their buyers have held them to last year’s prices, despite inflation and rising wages.
How to find a practical solution to the problem?
These conditions prevail in the garment factories because the manufacturing has become a very thin margin and low profitability operation. The factories save costs by under-investing in facilities and forcing overtime.
Short of an entirely disrupted supply chain model and full automation (which will come at cost of loss of employment for tens of millions), the only solution to the problem is investment in better working conditions of factories. But any such investment needs to be paid for and where shall the money come from?
One option is that suppliers should be paid a higher price for their products which would allow them to build a buffer to invest in better production facilities . This would need higher end prices for clothing which is difficult when thousands of new fast fashion retailers are competing with each other on promise of latest and cheapest fashion. With increased awareness, these customer behaviors may slowly change but it may take several years.
But we must not despair in the meantime. There is another alternative to find money.
Improved profitability from more efficient factory operations
It is widely accepted in industry discourse that improvement in productivity is an important part of “the solution” to achieve improved well being of millions of garment workers. Improvement in efficiency reduces the manufacturing cost per garment which could be directed towards better well being of the factory workers.
Here help to improve efficiency must be supported by increased transparency and openness to ensure that fruits of improvement are also reaching all the beneficiaries. This transparency can then be provided in a trustable manner to educate and convince consumers who are otherwise skeptical of the claims made by retailers.
Top 3 Reasons why garment factories operate at low efficiency?
It is widely accepted that improvement in productivity is an important part of “the solution” to achieve higher wages…
Our analysis suggest that the root causes of low productivity in the garment manufacturing factory floors come from poor managerial skills, not following data-driven methods for process planning and poor wage structure.
The reason factories do not upgrade to new methods of timekeeping and training is because of upfront investments and uncertainty of outcomes. If any gains from efficiency improvements are spent to pay for these up-front costs, then the cost-benefit analysis does not remain compelling.
The industry must support innovative solution providers that are willing to break this entry barrier and work as partners to help the industry break these shackles.
A better working place is good for factory owners too
The deterioration of health conditions impact workers of all ages and physical strength. Studies find workers who are dehydrated and facing severe discomfort have impaired cognitive performance and amplified psychological strain. This results in decreased productivity, increased quality errors, and inflated accident rates. When workers are overheated, exhausted, and distracted, and are under pressure to work fast, they overlook procedures. This not only increases injury rates among garment workers, who use equipment that slice and singe, such as sewing machines, large scissors, and steam irons and presses, but it also increases the loss time for factories.
This gives us a way to reverse the vicious cycle of ‘race to the bottom’ to a virtuous cycle where all parts of the supply chain can deliver sustainably.
After all, consumers want the clothes to not only look good but also feel good.