Understand What Fair Labor Practices Look Like
My perspective has changed a lot the more I’ve learned about pay and responsible practices throughout my career. Working for larger companies, I had very little visibility into the details of the manufacturing process but these days, having my own small business has given me the opportunity to develop a long-term relationship with the factory we partner with. That also means that I have insight into the process from beginning to end, including the daily experience of garment workers.
I really connect with this type of work, as one of my first jobs was doing piece work in a garment factory. But I also believe it’s my job as a business owner to ensure that everyone involved in the company, no matter where they’re located or what their role, is treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
What do we mean by “fair labor practices”?
In the United States, the Department of Labor sets standardized requirements for apparel industry workers that companies must follow. This can be anything from paying workers at least the federal minimum wage, having overtime payment policies, and age restrictions that protect children under 16 from being employed in garment production.
Some states have their own regulations that companies must comply with as well. Businesses must follow the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or face expensive fines and the possibility of their factory being closed down. But when you work with overseas manufacturers, these types of stringent checks aren’t always the norm.
When looking for our manufacturing partner in India, it came down to three key factors – safe working conditions, work that is voluntarily chosen, and fair compensation based on local and national wage regulations. At Printfresh, these standards are how we determine fair labor practices with our partners, and our factory is regularly reviewed by the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex) so we have reporting to ensure continued compliance.
What issues do garment workers around the world currently face?
Of course, there’s plenty of nuance that comes to understanding the challenges that garment workers are dealing with all over the world, particularly in relation to wages and compensation. Living in the US, it’s easy to criticize other countries and their pay scales for a living wage when we have little understanding of their cost of living or the cultural obstacles that can prevent upward mobility.
In my research to better understand this, I came across a living wage calculator created by MIT and it gives us a lot to think about. It really shows how much inequity there is even in America and how this especially impacts children. Many garment workers struggle to afford basic needs like food, rent, healthcare, and education as their employer is legally permitted to pay them minimum wage, a rate that often falls drastically short of a living wage. As a society and global economy, I’d love for us to work on changing this for good.
Making sure that garment workers have safe working conditions is also incredibly important. It’s not uncommon for workers to face 14-16 hour days with no time off, working in space with little to no ventilation, toxic substances in the air, and structurally unsafe buildings.
I’ve always loved fashion, but as an outsider it can be hard to decipher between manufacturers that have really dangerous working conditions and those with incredibly progressive policies. As a consumer, it can be almost impossible to discern which is which so it’s the job of businesses to make sure they’re always working with the best manufacturers. That’s why we are continuously trying to do better and ensure the best certifications for our partner factory and the workers who make our products.
What can we do to ensure fair labor practices?
Sometimes it feels like we can only make a tiny splash in a huge pond when we think about improving labor practices around the world. But we have to remember that every splash can cause ripples that spread far and wide.
Information is much more accessible today and that helps us dive deeper into what the real experience for garment workers is and how we can continually improve it. When it comes to wages, companies make all sorts of decisions based on what they think consumers are willing to pay. As consumers, we can make real change just by buying less and being willing to spend what things are actually worth.
From the business side, I’d love to see more factories paying skilled workers a living wage rather than just minimum wage. Companies should be insisting on greater transparency into the pay grades of the manufacturers they work with and whether these align with the living wages in the region, regardless of where they’re located.
For us, the time we’ve spent researching has been extensive but certainly worth the effort. It’s been challenging to find a credible source for living wage standards in India but Global Living Wage has been an excellent resource for us as we look into converting to Fair Trade certification in the coming years.
Working towards transparency and positive shifts for better and fairer labor practices is no easy task, but one that we all have an important role in. At Printfresh, we’re constantly evaluating how we can produce products with greater care and minimal impact. While we know that we don’t have all the answers, we continue to work to find the best ways to make and deliver our designs to your home.