Why won’t H&M ‘turn around’ and provide a living wage for its workers?

Why won't H&M ‘turn around' and provide a living wage for its workers?

Garment factory workers cram into the back of a truck during their commuting home after work in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

(Alamy/ Kraig Lieb)

Research findings by Clean Clothes Campaign about poverty wages for workers making H&M clothes recently echoed around the world.

In Europe, people were especially shocked about one of the countries we researched (Bulgaria) being a European Union member. The main disappointment, however, lies in the fact that despite a clear and widely publicised commitment – that workers would be paid a wage that supports a decent life by 2018 – H&M has not made this happen.

Shortly after finding out that we were planning to publish the results of months of investigations into four countries and including interviews with 62 workers, H&M released a statement claiming they have created “the foundation for fair living wage”, “reaching close to a million garment workers”. All their pre-emptive claims of progress ignore the actual promise: that living wages would be paid by this year.

H&M does sometimes beat competitors in taking positive steps toward a more sustainable garment industry. One of these was the ground-breaking living wage commitment. However, our research clearly shows that words are not enough.

H&M has not disclosed specific information related to their 2013 commitment that we have repeatedly asked for, but we have every reason to believe that the six factories included in our research reflect the broader reality: H&M took a lot of credit for its original commitment but has so far failed to deliver in the form of an actual living wage materialising in workers’ wallets. Yet, H&M has the audacity to now claim that they have exceeded their goals!

This is bound to backfire, as more and more people are realising that H&M is trying to rewrite history and cover up the original commitment altogether.

One of H&M’s public relations tactics is to portray us as going against the conventional wisdom, which is simply not true. As always, we fully support and strive for freedom of association and constructive collective bargaining.

However, there are some major problems in the current reality of the garment industry. For one, H&M has chosen to source its garments from a number of countries and factories with severe limitations to freedom of association and, related to that, severely limited possibilities for living wages to be achieved through social dialogue.

Moreover, H&M and other brands have a direct impact on what is possible in that dialogue between workers and their employers. One aspect of this is the price they pay for ready-made garments. H&M could easily dip into their billions of euros of profits to increase that price and factor in a higher labour cost, which represents just a small fraction of the final price. They could improve workers’ lives by enabling a living wage without delay, in parallel to the long-term sector-wide efforts that they are a part of.

Action is needed – not just words

H&M stating now that there is no universally agreed living wage benchmark as an argument for failing to lift workers out of poverty is an astonishingly weak response. We simply refuse to accept that as an argument, as should everyone else. In fact, there are several benchmarks – but they all need action and not just words.

It is crystal clear that neither minimum wages nor workers’ actual wages are anywhere near any living wage benchmark, and H&M has the responsibility to close the gap. This is not only because they had made the clear commitment that this would happen by 2018, but also because H&M and other brands overall have the responsibility to uphold human rights in their supply chains, including the right to a living wage.

As we have pointed out before, in H&M’s responses there is ever more focus on processes, without any clear indication that they are delivering actual change on workers’ payslips. Looking from the perspective of a garment worker living in poverty: a process does not feed your family, cover a medical emergency, or make sure you have a roof over your head.

The responses by H&M to media coverage of our report reaffirm the need for our #TurnAroundHM #LivingWageNow campaign – because H&M makes every effort to avoid the specific commitment that we are highlighting and that they are failing on: that 850,000 garment workers in H&M strategic supplier factories would be paid a living wage by this year.

Together with over 100,000 people who have already joined the campaign we will continue to emphasise that H&M has the responsibility as well as financial means and other resources to live up to the original commitment and ensure workers are paid a living wage without delay. All that H&M is lacking is the political will to do it.