Charity Report Highlights Workers' Rights
2 October 2007 at 1:31 pm
A Brotherhood of St Laurence report on the garment industry finds that the clothes Australians buy are produced by companies that have been slow to embrace both mandatory and voluntary mechanisms to protect workers’ conditions in this country and overseas.
Yet local outworkers interviewed for the “Ethical Threads" report on corporate social responsibility in the industry said working conditions were worse than five years ago because a shortage of work left them with little bargaining power with contractors.
And smaller companies interviewed for the report had a limited understanding of both working conditions among their suppliers and the existing laws and voluntary mechanisms to protect workers.
Released this month, Ethical Threads is the first Australian report on corporate social responsibility in the sector that draws on all stakeholders – companies, unions, workers, non-government organisations, peak industry groups, government and universities.
Report co-author Emer Diviney praised the companies that took part in the groundbreaking research saying they have been highly responsible in contributing to a report that spotlights problems in their industry and by doing so show their commitment to improving workers’ conditions.
Diviney says some companies believed there was no business case for ethical supply of the clothing they sold as most consumers didn’t care how clothing was manufactured.
However, she says if Australia follows trends in Europe, consumers will become more concerned about the social and environmental impact of their purchases.
She says it is crucial that everyone in the sector, including companies, the union and peak bodies, worked together to improve workers’ conditions and rights. Ethical Threads finds that, although stakeholders acknowledge the need to work together to improve conditions for workers, they tend not to trust each other or understand each others circumstances.
Diviney says there is no forum for the industry to work together to improve conditions for workers employed by overseas suppliers, while the Australian initiative led by both union and business, the Homeworkers Code of Practice for local workers, needs a review and extra funding to be more effective.
The report also recommends that government, companies, non-government organisations and unions should “walk the talk", ensuring that any clothing they buy, such as uniforms and promotional t-shirts, are produced ethically.
The report states that most small-to-medium enterprises, which account for four fifths of the industry, believed that they were too small to ensure their clothes were manufactured ethically. They also said it was getting harder to find manufacturers in Australia and overseas to produce their smaller runs.
A key recommendation of the report is a pilot ethical manufacturing centre for SMEs and outworkers, to streamline work flow, establish legal minimum working conditions, run training courses in technical skills for outworkers and give small labels an ethical-production option.
An overwhelming finding of the research is companies’ lack of awareness of the bad working conditions for workers in Australia and lack of a sense of responsibility for those conditions.
Diviney says the complexity of supply chains meant labour rights problems were often hidden.
Other recommendations in the report include:
– State and federal governments and the sector should establish a process involving all stakeholders that helps companies to be socially responsible in managing their international supply chains.
– All levels of government should require that clothing suppliers demonstrate that they are monitoring and improving production conditions, both locally and overseas
– The Federal Government should introduce regulations in line with the European Union’s, which require large companies to demonstrate a process for monitoring and improving conditions in their local and international contracting chain.