New film challenges fashion brands over living wage broken promises
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The world’s largest fashion brands need to be held accountable for their repeated broken promises to lift garment workers out of working poverty, a new documentary film argues.

From director Andrew Morgan – best known for his 2015 film “The True Cost”, which focuses on fast fashion’s impact on workers and the environment in poor countries – and Eco-Age founder Livia Firth, “Fashionscapes: A Living Wage” is the latest addition to an investigative short documentary series that considers the fashion industry’s ethical and ecological future.

The new 15-minute film was launched on 24 April to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, where at least 1,132 workers died and more than 2,500 were injured following the collapse of five garment factories in Bangladesh; at least 29 fashion brands, including Canadian label Joe Fresh, Italy’s Benetton, and the UK’s Primark were linked with the factories in the nation’s capital, Dhaka.

The filmmakers follow the stories of activists in “garment hotspots” and legal experts around the world calling time on the “poverty wages” that they say trap millions of workers in a never-ending cycle of poverty. The film highlights the low wages paid to garment workers in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Thailand, as well as the physical and labour rights abuses they allegedly suffer.

The data and stories highlighted suggest that between 60 and 80 million women are not earning enough money to live on, with the situation only exasperated by the covid-19 pandemic, which saw factories shuttered throughout the developing world in 2020. Even before the covid crisis, the rising costs of living in these developing nations meant the low wages make it impossible for workers to save for their families’ futures.

In the short film, women workers tell of being forced to work long hours, often sleeping on factory floors, all while sustaining physical harassment by supervisors with the ever-present risk of illegal termination. One worker claimed she is forced to survive on as little as $6 a month even after working for 400 hours during that period.

“Workers aren’t accidentally in poverty; workers are in poverty because the system was created to keep them in poverty,” said business and human rights researcher Thulsi Narayanasamy in the film.

The film also comes shortly after the publication of a recent report by NGO The Circle calling on the EU to legislate for a living wage for garment workers. In conjunction with the report, this new film aims to dispel the myth perpetuated by global brands that it is difficult to institute and police a living wage in garment-making nations.

“As a lawyer, I know that people can argue anything; it’s always possible to make an argument, and it is even possible to believe your own argument,” said Jessica Simor QC, author of the report who also appears in the film. “But fundamentally, if you have to face the human being who is living in relentless poverty, I would say to those CEOs ‘make that argument to that worker, to their face, to the person who is suffering’.”

If you can’t pay someone the basic, human existence in some of the poorest communities in our world, then what are you doing?

“The fast fashion brands that have fobbed off civil society activists for years on [the] living wage are being driven to change by a powerful alliance of women,” said Firth. “This documentary brings together women who are experts in poverty, degradation, and injustice because as garment workers in their supply chains they live it every day with women at the top of their international legal careers.

“The resulting report and strategy is born out of mutual respect and commitment. It holds the brands and retailers, who have always maintained that a living wage isn’t possible, to account. A string of broken promises can now be challenged on the basis of a human obligation to protect human rights. I can now see a day when we will get justice for garment workers.”

In a behind-the-scenes interview, Morgan said: “Time after time we keep coming back to this issue about a living wage. If you can’t pay someone the basic, human existence in some of the poorest communities in our world, then what are you doing?

“The brands are always excited to come to the table and talk about marginal improvements, experimental initiatives, things touching 2%, 5% of their supply chains, but the elephant in the room goes on unchanged, and that is that we’ve normalised the grotesque poverty of millions of the world’s working poor,” he added.

“Many of the people, mostly women, who fuel this industry and its staggering profits are still not being paid enough to live the most basic life in some of the world’s poorest communities.”

Marisa Selfa, chief executive of North Sails, called the documentary “an eye-opener”. “We've made it mandatory viewing at North Sails Apparel, and I believe everyone in the apparel industry should watch it as well. Our hope is this helps to drive the urgent change the fashion industry is responsible for.”

Kalpona Akter, a union activist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and featured in the film, said: “We all want these jobs, but we want them with dignity. And dignity doesn’t come until we have a living wage.”

Image: courtesy of “Fashionscapes: A Living Wage”