Another day, another searing indictment of the capitalist machine we call “fast fashion.” Ahead of the International Labour Conference in June, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international consortium of trade unions and labor-rights groups, has released a series of reports about human rights and labor abuses in the global supply chain. For the garment sector, the organization chose to highlight Gap and H&M, two of the world’s largest apparel retailers. And its conclusions, suffice to say, are less than flattering. Western brands like Gap and H&M, according to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, “wield the potential to transform working conditions through their supply chains” in the developing world. Yet neither have produced the results to match their claims of social responsibility, supply-chain transparency, and respect for human rights.
MIND THE GAP
In the race to the bottom, Gap emerges looking worse for the wear. While the company, which owns the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Athleta brands, has committed to raising the minimum hourly pay rate for U.S. employees, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance notes that it has not extended the same consideration for its workers in its overseas factories.
In fact, mere months before Gap pledged to increase the salaries of its American workforce in 2014, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights accused the retailer of “cheating the poorest workers in the world,” in violation of its own code of conduct.
Women who make Old Navy children’s clothing are arbitrarily fired and denied paid maternity leave or outstanding legal benefits, the institute wrote in its report of Bangladesh’s Next Collections factory, where Gap and Old Navy garments comprise 70 percent of its production.
Next Collections workers are forced to work 14- to 17-plus-hour shifts, seven days a week, yet are paid only 20 to 24 cents per hour, the institute said. Those same workers are “visibly sick and exhausted” from the excessive overtime, which can result in workweeks of 100 hours or more. They live in “miserable poverty in tiny primitive hovels” and run out of money for food by the third week of a month.
A 20-year-old miscarried at seven months because of the arduous labor, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights added. She was reportedly working on Old Navy jeans.
“Working conditions like those reported in Next Collections are far from isolated incidents,” the Asia Floor Wage Alliance said. “Gap lags far behind other brands in their commitments to decent work and safe workplaces.”
The group highlighted, in particular, the company’s neat refusal to sign the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh after the multi-factory Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,134 workers and injured thousands more in April 2013. Instead, it opted to latch onto the voluntary and more loosely regulated Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which counts Walmart, another target of labor groups, among its members.
“To date, Gap has refused to make a contractual commitment to work with their suppliers and local and international trade unions to ensure that repairs are made and workers have the right to refuse dangerous work,” the Asia Floor Wage Alliance said. “Rather than upholding rights and work for garment workers overseas, Gap maintains high-pressure sourcing models within the garment global production network that create overwhelming incentives for factories to reduce costs and speed production by ignoring labor standards.”