Labour Exploitation

There is little transparency as to which clothing items are made by workers who are paid fairly and which clothes are made in sweatshop conditions. Modern-day slavery, which currently affects more than 30 million people, is used throughout the production of many clothing products sold on Australian shelves. Items manufactured in Australia too may involve worker exploitation.  (See more at Homeworkers in Australia)

Internationally agreed labour rights include:

  • Employment is freely chosen
  • Payment of a living wage
  • Secure employment
  • Safe and healthy working conditions,
  • Working hours are not excessive and overtime is voluntary
  • Freedom from sexual harassment, discrimination or verbal and/or physical abuse
  • Workers are able to speak out and defend and improve their own labour rights through freedom of association to join a trade join and bargain collectively.

See more on specific labour related standards and certifications.

Working Hours

“Long working hours and forced overtime are a major concern among garment workers. Factory managers typically push employees to work between 10 and 12 hours, sometimes 16 to 18 hours a day. When order deadlines loom, working hours get longer. A seven-day working week is becoming the norm during the peak season, particularly in China, despite limits placed by the law.

Phan, a 22-year-old machinist in a Thai garment factory, gives this account of life at her factory:
“We work from 8 am till noon, then have our lunch break. After lunch we work from 1 to 5 pm. We do overtime every day, from 5.30 pm. During the peak season, we work until 2 or 3 am. Although exhausted, we have no choice. We cannot refuse overtime: our basic wage is too low. If we want to rest, our employer forces us to keep working”.”

Labour Behind the Label


The majority of workers in the global fashion industry, rarely earn more than two dollars a day. Many have to work excessive hours for this meagre amount and struggle to properly feed, clothe and educate their families. In many cases, garment workers earn less that the national poverty levels set by governments and international organisations. This situation is further antagonised when prices paid to suppliers are cut by brands and retailers.”

Labour Behind the Label

Women in El Salvador are paid just 29 cents for each $140 Nike NBA jersey they sew. To pay them a living wage, they would earn 58 cents per shirt…4/10ths of one percent of the retail cost of the shirt.

Chinese production workers are paid a government wage of 64 cents an hour, assuming a 40-hour week. In fact, 60 to 100 hour weeks are common in China, meaning that the real manufacturing wage is far less – more like 42 cents an hour.

“When challenged by on the wage issue, most companies claim that workers in their supply chains should be paid the minimum wage or the industry standard in that country, whichever is the higher. Minimum wages, usually defined by governments, are set in the context of ferocious competition and consequently often fall well below these governments’ own poverty thresholds. Furthermore, a minimum wage is often well below what is required for a living wage.”

Labour Behind the Label

“The problem is complicated further when the millions of piece- rate workers and homeworkers within the industry are considered. When workers are paid by the number of garments they produce, rather than the number of hours they work, it becomes near-impossible to earn a living wage during a working week.”

Labour Behind the Label

Worker’s rights

“A living wage and the right to join a trade union are widely accepted as the basic rights that should be ensured for workers. However, the issue becomes more complicated surrounding homeworkers and other forms of precarious work. A growing trend within the garment industry are employment patterns such as long-term temporary contracts, sometimes through a labour contractor, short-term contracts and day workers, and subcontracting. While these forms of employment can be positive when chosen by workers – in particular, homework – they are not positive when employers use them to replace permanent employment, to circumvent their legal obligations to workers, or to divide and rule their workforce. Many workers are not given a contract, and feel too intimidated to request one. However, even when contracts are issued, employers still abuse their power and flout the terms.”

Labour Behind the Label

Trade Unions

Any company that says it takes working conditions seriously should welcome the formation of a trade union in one of its suppliers, and indeed should set out to encourage it. The existence of management systems at factory level including trade union recognition agreements, procedures for the avoidance of disputes and regular collective bargaining, ought to be a sign to buyers that a framework is in place for achieving compliance with the labour standards contained in their codes of conduct. Given the atmosphere of fear and the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of suppliers towards their workforces, workers need to have the confidence to exercise their rights without fear of persecution. That requires moral support from people they trust, and it needs a strong, positive message from buyers … When the response from a brand on trade union rights is lukewarm, one has to wonder whether this is not because it knows that the prices and lead times it demands from suppliers would not be sustainable if workers were really in a position to object.”

Labour Behind the Label

Multi-stakeholder initiatives

Are necessary, but not sufficient. They are a forum for companies, trade unions and labour rights groups to share experiences and concerns, and to work together to solve problems in global supply chains.” They are “means of developing and sharing best practice; its reporting system opens companies up to scrutiny from other member organisations. But multi-stakeholder initiatives like the ETI, Fair Labor Association and MFA Forum remain tools, not outcomes. The test of a company’s commitment is not its membership of forums like these alone, but what use it makes of them.”

So how do companies fair?

The recent Not For Sale Apparel Industry Trends Report’ on slavery in the apparel industry, featuring supply chain ratings for more than 300 brands. The report uses publicly available information and data self-reported by companies to rate how brands are addressing child and forced labor in their supply chains.


  • Get informed. See the Simple Plan and MTV EXIT video for ‘This Song Saved My Life‘, highlighting the realities of labour exploitation and human trafficking
  • See the Radiohead ‘All I need‘ video showing life for a child labourer
  • See ‘Behind the Swoosh‘ documentary and more about the fight against Nike’s sweatshops at TeamSweat
  • See the Bloomberg business week ‘Secrets, Lies, And Sweatshops’ article on ‘How Chinese suppliers hide the truth from U.S. companies’ ; 2006 or listen to the podcast
  • See ‘Cashing In – Giant Retailers, Purchasing Practices, and Working Conditions in the Garment Industry’ report (EU, 2009), which looks at the five top global retailers: Carrefour, Walmart, Tesco, Aldi, and Lidl, shedding light on the poor working conditions where these discounters produce their clothes.
  • See factory profiles and reports
  • Campaign for better working conditions in the clothing industry here in Australia at Fairwear
  • See introductory video at
  • See the Oxfam Offside! Labor rights and sportswear production in Asia’ report (2006) and Oxfam ‘FAQ– Labour rights and ethical manufacturing in the footwear and garment sector’ document
  • See the Play Fair Campaign ‘Clearing The Hurdles‘ report card which presents responses from Nike, adidas, Pentland, Puma, Lotto, New Balance, Asics and Mizuno on their willingness to meet 36 specific targets to overcome the four hurdles facing workers in the sportswear industry