Helena Helmersson, global head of sustainability at H&M, unveiled the roadmap at the inaugural “Living Wage in International Supply Chains” conference in Berlin on Monday, where she referred to living wages as a “shared responsibility.” The plan, she explained, tackles wages in the short and long term on several levels, including purchasing practices, supplier practices, workers’ rights, and government responsibility.
H&M sources most of its garments from factories in Asia, including Bangladesh.
“Our new roadmap is based on our vision that a fair living wage covering workers basic needs should be paid by all our commercial goods supplier,” H&M says. “This should be enabled through H&M’s purchasing practices, and based on a skilled workforce that have their wages negotiated and annually reviewed, involving democratically elected trade unions or worker representatives.”
H&M sources most of its garments from factories in Asia, including Bangladesh, where the deaths of 1,129 people in a devastating building collapse in April have become a flashpoint in the debate over the treatment of textile workers in the third world.
Although H&M did not source from that facility, it was the first company to sign the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh in the disaster’s aftermath.
BETWEEN THE LINES
H&M’s announcement does raise the question, however, of why it wasn’t paying a living wage to begin with. The charge isn’t unfamiliar to the retailer, which has been accused in the past of promoting poverty pay, malnutrition, and unsafe work environments in the East, Cambodia in particular.
In October 2012, a Swedish broadcast alleged that Cambodian workers are paid so little they have to borrow money to buy food.
In October 2012, a television documentary, aired by Swedish broadcaster TV4, alleged that Cambodian workers producing clothing for H&M are paid so little they have to borrow money to buy food. The company denied the accusations at the time, insisting that it was, in fact, working to raise local salaries.
Over in Bangladesh, where wages are higher than only Myanmar in Asia, violent protests have forced hundreds of factories to suspend production despite a recent agreement by factory owners to raise the minimum wage by 77 percent to 5,300 taka ($68). Tensions continue to run high as workers demand salaries of at least 8,000 taka ($103) per month.
Emma Harbour, campaign and communications coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, welcomes H&M’s roadmap as a “positive step toward the necessary changes needed in purchasing practices in order to see the payment of a living wage,” she tells Ecouterre.
If the retailer is truly committed to paying a living wage, however, it needs to first identify a benchmark for a living wage.
If the retailer is truly committed to paying a living wage, however, it needs to first identify a benchmark for a living wage. “Without a definition of a living wage, it is impossible to ensure the payment of one,” Harbour says before recommending the well-established Asia Floor Wage as a guide. The Clean Clothes Campaign also urges H&M to sign the Indonesia Freedom of Association Protocol, which Harbour says will be a “a clear demonstration of [its] commitment to ensuring freedom of association is respected and the rights to collective bargaining are in place.”
“We will be watching the development of H&M’s plans with keen interest,” Harbour adds. As they say ‘ with size comes responsibility’ and we hope they will use this responsibility wisely.”