Big clothes brands found to fall short of own fair wage promises

Most major garment companies lack plans for calculating—let alone achieving—a living wage in their global supply chains.

Zara and H&M shoppers
A woman carries a Zara shopping bag and walks past people holding H&M shopping bags outside an H&M store in central Madrid March 13, 2015. Image: REUTERS/Susana Vera via Thomson Reuters Foundation

The world’s top clothing brands are failing to fulfil their own promises to pay workers a fair living wage that covers basic family needs, academics and activists said on Thursday.

Most major garment companies lack plans for calculating—let alone achieving—a living wage in their global supply chains, despite signing up to initiatives that push for better pay, said researchers at Britain’s Sheffield University.

A living wage is supposed to cover the cost of normal family life—from rent and food to healthcare—plus allow for modest savings and be paid within a normal working week, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a pressure group.

Only three of 20 big clothes companies studied by Sheffield University—Sweden’s H&M, and Dutch giants C&A and G-Star RAW—have committed to wages that meet that brief, their report said.

Consumers are purchasing products they may believe are made by workers earning a living wage, when in reality, low wages continue to be the status quo.

Genevieve LeBaron, politics professor, Sheffield University

And even that commitment has not led to higher earnings for many working in the far-flung factories and for firms with a hand in creating cheap fashion for Western high streets.

Garment brands are under rising pressure from campaigners and consumers alike to improve conditions for some 60 million workers in their supply chains, ending abuse and modern slavery.

But the desire for affordable, throwaway fashion persists, squeezing wages for the workers who stitch most Western clothes.

“There is little evidence that corporate commitments to living wages are translating into meaningful change on the ground,” said Genevieve LeBaron, a politics professor at Sheffield University and lead author of the report.

“Consumers are purchasing products they may believe are made by workers earning a living wage, when in reality, low wages continue to be the status quo,” she said.

“Not easy”

Over the past decade, leading garment companies have vowed to deliver a living wage to their workers and signed up to initiatives aiming to achieve this goal through myriad means.

But few have lived up to their own words, the report found.

Questioned about the findings, companies including Inc and France’s Decathlon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that their suppliers respected local laws on pay and benefits—but did not mention a living wage.

Gap Inc said it was working with partners and other brands to engage governments and encourage wage-setting mechanisms as “we know there is more work to be done”.

German sportswear group Puma said wages should be negotiated locally—and involve workers, management and government—not mandated by global companies or international organisations.

“It is not easy to define a ‘fair’ wage,” Robert-Jan Bartunek, Puma senior manager of corporate communications, said by email. “A recent wage project conducted for PUMA in Bangladesh … listed five different living wage figures.”

H&M—the world’s second-largest fashion retailer after Zara owner Inditex—in 2013 announced a first-of-its-kind plan to ensure a living wage for some 850,000 textile workers by 2018.

In December, the company said no workers were paid a living wage as unions and manufacturers in its supplier nations had not agreed on a figure at a national level, and that H&M did not want to create an “isolated bubble of fairness”.

The researchers said there was “widespread inconsistency and confusion” among firms over the definition of a living wage, with many passing the buck by outsourcing vows on better pay to external schemes that are out of step with their own policies.

“Far too many companies stop at assuring that minimum wages are paid, which is clearly a long way off from working towards a living wage,” said Peter McAllister, head of the Ethical Trading Initiative—a group of trade unions, companies and charities.

This story was published with permission from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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