You won’t find any easy answers in Living Wage Now. Indeed it’s the issues it poses that makes the 32-minute documentary essential viewing. Produced by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international consortium of trade unions and labor-rights groups currently pushing for higher standards at the International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Living Wage Now provides an unblinking and by turns heartrending look at the struggles of garment workers across Asia. With painfully stark clarity, the film gives a voice to the roughly 40 million garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, and Indonesia who regularly risk physical violence, sexual harassment, starvation, and even death for the sake of our cheap clothes.
FIGHTING TO LIVE
“Leading clothing brands and retailers use the power to shift production from one supplier to another to keep prices down. That puts substantial pressure on suppliers, who seek to compete by cutting corners,” says the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which recently published a series of reports of rampant abuses in the supply chains of Gap and H&M. “Workers ultimately pay the price.”
The documentary bears this out, often in the workers’ own words. “My salary is very low only $160 a month. That is not enough to cover basic expenses,” a young Cambodian woman says at the start. “Like rent, my children’s education, food and water, repaying loans.”
A worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh describes barely escaping the collapse of the multi-factory Rana Plaza building, which killed 1,134 of her cohorts and injured or maimed thousands more in April 2013. She has her life if not the use of all her limbs. “I will never fully recover,” she says. “I can’t work again.”
Factory workers in New Delhi describe scrimping by and barely surviving. “We live in places without even proper roofs, in places barely fit for animals,” one of them says. “Money is the issue.”
Another describes a lack of uncontaminated drinking water, a problem that leads to chronic ailments like kidney stones.
Living Wage Now contrasts reposeful vignettes of department-store windows in Europe with footage of military brutality against striking workers in Jakarta and Phnom Penh.
“They opened fire on us; we ran for cover,” a woman says, describing a protest in 2014 that quickly took a deadly turn. All we did was ask for fair wages. They attacked us; they shot at us.”
Speaking the documentary, Anannya Bhattacharjee, international coordinator at the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, says that the minimum wage set by most countries in Asia isn’t enough for workers to live on.
She sums up the need for a locally adjusted regional living wage—an Asia Floor Wage—that covers not only a family’s basic expenses, such as food, housing, transport, education, and healthcare, but also leaves a little extra for emergencies.
“Do you think that workers who are producing high-level fashion for the global market should be living like rats?” she asks in the film. “We don’t think so. We think that workers should be having a wholesome life, a dignified life for themselves and their families. And this is what Asia Floor Wage is about.”