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When investigating her book Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, author Anne Elizabeth Moore remembers one woman’s story in particular. A farmer’s wife, she toiled ten hours a day, six days per week in a garment factory. With no one at home she sent her child away, to grow up in the provinces with relatives.
Next door, her neighbour wanted desperately to keep her son close “so she padlocked him in her apartment when she was gone during the day,” says Moore. “The woman I was speaking to didn’t want to do that. She was already affected too deeply by that kid’s screams.” Despite her hard work, the only meat she could afford was rotten.
Such stories are common across Asia in the factories that churn out cheap clothes for Western consumption. Vietnam is one nation that has hauled its population out of crushing poverty: since the policy of Doi Moi or ‘Renovation’ was introduced in the 1980s, per capita income has soared from roughly USD$100 to $2,100 in 2015. Spearheading this growth is the booming garment industry.
Over two million people are employed in a sector whose export target this year is US$30 billion, up from $27 billion last year. While a large number of raw materials are still imported, cheap labour is giving Vietnam an edge over its more expensive neighbour China.
Yet the garment industry is beset by problems. The vast majority of workers are women, many migrants from poverty-stricken rural areas who send their wages back home to support families. Expected to meet strict daily production targets, overtime is often mandatory and poorly paid.
“I could take off Sundays but had to then work from 7am Saturday to 8am Sunday,” one factory worker is quoted as saying in a 2013 Worker Rights Consortium report Made in Vietnam. Another employee admitted: “We are all so exhausted from the job, but whenever somebody asked for a reduction in overtime they were fired.”
In 2014, Vietnam’s Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA) confirmed that up to 80 per cent of textile and garment factories violated policies on working hours and rest periods. The same year, the US Department of Labor listed the Vietnamese garment industry as a sector that uses forced labour and child labour. Just under 50,000 workers in Vietnam are aged less than eighteen, according to the ILO-MOLISA Survey on Child Labour, with 1.2 per cent of these aged between five and eleven (the majority working in unregistered factories). In 2011 Human Rights Watch also reported on the forced imprisonment of drug addicts in compulsory detention centres, some of which use inmates as workers to produce goods.
Health and safety, meanwhile, remains patchy at best. In 2011, a footwear factory in the city of Hai Phong caught fire, killing seventeen (with only one exit, many were trapped inside). Workers can also be exposed to toxic chemicals, often without the use of protective clothing. Conditions in such factories “are not good by any standard, and no amount of ‘at least these women have jobs’ should delude you into thinking they are,” insists Moore.
“My own work inside factories and talking to employees indicates that wages average less than thirty per cent of a living wage throughout Southeast Asia, sexual harassment is common if not the norm, and workers can be fired on whim for very minor infractions – like fainting, perhaps from malnutrition or overheating – which fail to adhere to most labour laws,” she adds.
For women, problems are particularly persistent. “Women tend to be sewers and helpers, while men are usually in higher paid occupations, working as cutters and mechanics. Men are also three times more likely than women to be supervisors,” Nguyen Hong Ha, programme manager of Better Work Vietnam, told The Irish Times in 2014.
Reproductive rights are largely ignored. According to the Worker Rights Consortium report, women are often hired on rolling six-month contracts so that those discovered to be with child can be easily fired. Some contracts state that women are not allowed to become pregnant for three years.
Underpinning all this is the lack of free labour unions. “This is because the labour law forces all unions to be part of the government-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), and in many garment factories, the ‘union’ is really controlled by senior factory managers wearing union hats, which is not the place you’d want to take a labour complaint if you want to keep your job,” explains Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia.
“No one should forget that Vietnam remains a one-party dictatorship that views free trade unions as a threat to its rule, reflecting the communist orientation to control workers rather than liberate them,” he continues. “Corruption is also rife in basic regulatory procedures, restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly continue to be prevalent. The State controls media as well as all things judicial, political, and religious.”
Attempting to strike can result in punishment. In 2012, one worker’s hands were glued together, requiring hospital treatment, after going on strike. In 2010, factory worker Nguyen Tan Hoanh was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for ‘disturbing the peace’ through labour activism.
Of course, there are exceptions. Near Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese company Saitex is attempting to not only treat its workers fairly but to create a greener factory to produce its blue jeans, largely powered by solar and wind.
Increasingly, consumers are becoming more concerned about exactly where their clothes are being produced. “But on the other hand, these same brands are demanding rapid turnaround on their orders and rock-bottom prices, and that conflicts with their supplier factories ensuring better labour conditions and complying with labour laws,” says Robertson. “Something has to give somewhere, and often it’s workers’ rights… Many brands dodge responsibility for cleaning up their supply chain until they get caught.”
For apparel producers, challenges come back to “three major factors: price, delivery and quality,” agrees Lauren Dignan, merchandising manager at Un-Available, a foreign-owned manufacturer in Ho Chi Minh City that specialises in woven and knit wear.
Dignan insists that her company prioritises a clean, safe workplace and respects labour laws. Even so, “a constant discussion I face almost daily with clients revolves around their demands for added garment value and reduced pricing. Retail prices in the West are coming down and manufacturing prices in the East are going up. Brands [want] the same item as last season, for a lower price… If the end consumer was willing to pay a higher price, then it would be much easier for brands to meet their corporate social responsibility.”
So what can be done? The Better Work program, which aims to improve conditions in global supply chains, believes that increasing the empowerment of women is critical. Writing in The Guardian, Better Work’s director Dan Rees takes note of one Vietnamese factory that launched a kindergarten and health clinic. They discovered that “the investment reduced staff turnover and absenteeism, contributed to a fall in industrial disputes, saved costs and sustained productivity over several years.”
Moore believes that what is required is “much larger-scale change than either ‘brands behaving better’ or ‘trustworthy monitoring systems’. What the garment industry needs is a full-scale Do Over, in which the incentives to violate labour rights, underpay employees, fail to upkeep factories, and commit sexual harassment are removed from the foundations of the industry from the beginning.” Put simply, “changing shopping habits isn’t going to do it.”