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Garment Workers

March 17, 1997

[PHOTO TO COME] The woman in the photograph sewing clothing at home for retail sale could be working anywhere in the world. She happens to be in Canada. For many women, working at home means that we can take care of their own children. Wherever they work, garment workers tend to be poorly paid, often at or below subsistence level. Many must work long hours to meet production deadlines. In factories, women and children often work in appalling conditions, with little or no protection from health hazards; homeworkers face injuries and chronic conditions.

Even in countries like Canada where there are laws setting out minimum requirements, industry standards often fall significantly below these requirements. For example, homeworkers and those working in small shops set up by contractors - sweatshops - are usually paid "piece-rates" (a certain amount for each sewing step). Highly experienced homeworkers who are fast sewers often cannot even make the minimum wage. Yet there are factories supplying major brand names and contractors employing homeworkers who follow the law.

Around the world, women are organizing to try to improve their working situation. We as consumers can support them by demanding that the clothes we buy are produced under decent and fair conditions, including the right to a living wage, the right to organize, the right to safe and healthy working conditions. The story begins and ends with the retailer. The retailer determines the price of production, and therefore must take responsibility for the wages and working conditions of the women who sew its clothes.

    Here are some questions we can ask the store manager the next time we buy clothing:

  • Do you know how the workers who made this garment were treated?
  • Does your store have a code of conduct for all workers that make the clothes you sell?
  • Is the code of conduct posted in every factory and given to every worker?
  • Does it forbid child labour and protect the human rights of workers?
  • Does it specify living wages?
  • Is there an independent monitoring agency to make sure that everybody lives up to the code?

The Labour Behind the Label Coalition, a working group in Canada of labour, women, church and economic justice organizations has organized the WEAR FAIR CAMPAIGN to raise public awareness about the conditions under which most clothing is made, to encourage consumers to use their purchasing power by supporting retailers who make clothes in fair conditions and to organize actions to support the organizing efforts of clothing workers and the Campaign. For info on how to contact the Coalition, click on Resources.

More to Consider

Consumer power works. We need to remember that the next time we are standing in front of a cashier, perhaps nervous or shy about asking about that retailers' commitments to its workers and its customers. The GAP recently signed a groundbreaking agreement allowing for independent human rights observers to monitor conditions at contractors' plants where GAP clothing is made. This was the result of a campaign by a broad coalition of labour, religious, women, student, consumer and grassroots groups from Canada and the US. Woolworth, the US company which owns the clothing stores Northern Reflections, Northern Traditions and Northern Getaway, has agreed to carry out an investigation of some of its contractors' practices in Canada in response to publicity and other actions undertaken by people supporting the WEAR FAIR CAMPAIGN. Take a deep breath, and ask those questions.

This feature was first published on section15.ca's predecessor site CoolWomen.

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