Fair Wages

I was introduced to the colorful world of H&M at 18 years old. I momentarily wondered how was it physically possible that I could buy a blue sweater for $9, at full price but then my mind went into full shopping spree mode as I noticed $14 sundresses. Now, a few years the wiser, I have tried my best to abandon shopping at this institutions (and ones similar to it) specifically after the news broke of the Bangladesh factory collapse and how unfair the wages and working conditions are for the very people who made that blue sweater I loved so much.

Almost a year later after the factory collapse, there is talk of H&M looking to pay their garment workers fair wages! While I applaud H&M for trying to right the many wrongs that have been done to these workers (usually women), there are still cracks in their plan. In her article, Dana Liebelson outlines a few (but very big) problems that H&M has to face until this implementation could be considered a success.

The first issue she raises is H&M hasn’t said how much they will pay their workers, but stated that it is up to the workers and factories to decide and then based on the country and the Fair Wage Method, a proper wage will be determined. Theoretically, it sounds quite lovely. But in actuality, as Liebelson points out based on her first hand experience, “In India, the government does have a minimum wage for textile workers—but many of the female workers I spoke with were not being paid that wage, and didn’t have access to a union.” So if the government doesn’t enforce it and the workers do not have a union fighting for them… then what happens?

Secondly she questions how H&M can stay true to their promise of keeping prices the same while still raising the wage of their workers. There is some debate as to whether they can or not, the author of the 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline, disagrees. She believes that all it will do is continually decrease the quality of their items and “that the company is just riding on unsustainable expansion.”

On the other hand, it is argued that there is a way for this to be possible. Garment factory labor costs a company a small percentage when it comes to a garment’s total cost, according the University of California-Hastings’ law professor and expert in trade policy, Joel Paul. He goes on to say that by raising workers’ hourly wage from 15 cents to $1.50 (a Bangladesh estimated living wage), profits would only be minimally cut.

Finally, Liebelson shows the biggest hole in the plan – the fact that it is not all inclusive. H&M’s current plan doesn’t include all of its subcontractors – who control the spinning mills when the cotton is spun into thread. Basically, this means that garment factories can just outsource their labor to those subcontractors who are not a part of the H&M Fair Wage Promise, which is defeating the whole purpose of the Promise.

More than anything though, I want to see H&M educating their shoppers. I would love for H&M to raise the cost of that blue sweater from $9 to $10 and on the tag let the purchaser know that the one dollar increase was so that a mother of three in Indonesia would be able to feed her family tonight. Sadly, H&M is barely half of the problem, the rests with us, the consumers. We need to understand that it is our civic (and humane) duty to be okay with paying $10 for a sweater so that somewhere someone is getting by just a little better. So that the there will never be a repeat of the Bangladesh factory collapse. So that girls can grow up and work in a factory and earn enough money to go to school. It’s up to us to make the difference.

– Nicole Nadler