Garment workers worldwide not earning living wages

Prevailing wages of garment workers in many countries worldwide have not only declined in recent years, they currently also average only a third of a living wage. This is what the report “Global wage trends for apparel workers, 2001-2011” found,

published a few days ago by the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labour rights watchdog organization based in Washington, DC.

But firstGarment workers worldwide not earning living wages things first - according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) living wage-report, a living wage “must provide for the basic needs of not only the individual wage earner but also for his or her family”. For the WRC report, the organization studied nine of the top ten garment exporting countries to the US (as of 2012) and only 15 out of the top 21 - due to a shortage of field data for the remaining six.

Fifteen of the Top 21 garment exporting countries to the US were studied

Among the Top Ten, real wages fell in Bangladesh, Mexico, Honduras, Cambodia and El Salvador; accounting for almost 20 percent of the total value of garments exported to the US in 2011. Among the Top 21, real wages fell in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, the Philippines and Thailand and so did the market shares of exports to the US, falling dramatically to single digit ranges.

Among the Top Ten, real wages increased in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam; according to the report, “these four countries collectively made up 57 percent of clothing imports to the United States in 2011, and all four recorded gains in market share during this period”. Among the Top 21, real wages increased in Haiti and Peru, the 19th and 18th largest garment exporters to the US, respectively.

The wage gap keeps increasing

Taking inflation and actual buying power into account, even in countries where wages increased, the gap between prevailing and living wages didn’t necessarily close. “With the noteworthy exception of China, the gap between prevailing wages and living wages is still significant in the countries where prevailing wages have risen in real terms, and this is unlikely to be overcome within the next 20 to 30 years,” states the report. In fact, only in China, where real wages increased by 124 percent, will the prevailing wage have caught up with the living wage by 2023 at the earliest and that only if the wage growth seen between 2001 and 2011 is sustained.

As mentioned earlier, the prevailing wage of garment workers worldwide currently averages a third of a living wage. The consequences of this are clear: either a family does not manage to live above the poverty line on one income or is forced to send all members of the family, including children, out to work to make ends meet. Needless to say, this comes at the expense of education and thus the chance of improving conditions for the next generation.

In terms of individual factory performances, the report came to the following sad result: “Only one apparel factory in a developing country—the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic—has been certified as actually paying a living wage as defined using the methodological approach that the aforementioned ILO report identified to be the preferred method of making such an estimate”.

Image: Female garment workers sewing / WRC