H&M has come under fire after a Swedish broadcast claims the high-street retailer isn’t doing enough to prevent sweatshop-like conditions at a subcontractor’s factory in Cambodia. The television documentary, aired by TV4’s Kalla Fakta (“Cold Facts”) program on Wednesday night, alleges that Cambodian workers producing clothing for the company are paid so little they have to borrow money to buy food. H&M, which allowed TV4 access to the facility, has since denied the charges, insisting that it is, in fact, working to raise local salaries.
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“As most other fashion brands, we don´t own the factories,” Helena Helmersson, the company’s head of sustainability, says. “Instead we buy garments from suppliers. Hence, we don’t pay the wages to the factory workers. Regarding the statutory minimum wage, i.e., the wage the least-skilled workers in the factories earn, it is decided by the local government.”
The minimum wage for Cambodian garment workers is $61 per month—or 25% of what constitutes a living wage.
Helmersson, who describes H&M as a “customer,” says the retailer seeks to “strengthen the dialogue” between Cambodian officials and members of the Cambodian textile industry. “The goal is to improve the dialogue between employers and employees which allow them to find agreements through negotiation instead of confrontation, as often seen today,” she adds.
Still, labor activists insist that with no action plan, benchmarks, or timelines, H&M’s efforts offer little guarantee of any meaningful change. “We support the idea of building a respectful dialogue between the trade unions and the employers in Cambodia,” says Athit Kong, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union. “But H&M must also play its part. It is absolutely necessary that any project includes trade unions at the local and the nation level and really reflects the workers’ voices. This is the only way to achieve visible changes on a grassroots level.”
The minimum wage for Cambodian garment workers is $61 per month—or 25 percent of what constitutes a living wage in the country, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a Netherlands-based labor alliance dedicated to improving working conditions in the global garment industry. The group blames chronic malnutrition, coupled with close quarters, for the near-epidemic of mass faintings occurring across factories in the region.
“Low wages come at a high cost,” says Jeroen Merk, a research coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign. “Last year, over 2,400 workers passed out in Cambodian factories due to malnutrition as a direct consequence of low salaries. But H&M, one of Cambodia’s main buyers, continues to refuse to pay a living wage to its workers. This is unacceptable.”