Union action needed to protect migrant workers in fashion industry
On the occasion of International Migrants Day, the Global Union representing workers in the clothing and footwear sectors has called on unions to step up their efforts to protect the rights of migrant workers employed in the industry.
Says Patrick Itschert, General Secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation: “The abuse of migrant workers, including trafficked migrant labour, is a growing problem in the fashion industry, with workers often paying labour brokers a hefty fee – sometimes as much as ten years' local minimum wage - in order to secure a job in Jordan, Malaysia, Mauritius or elsewhere.
“The fees often take the form of a loan which must then be repaid, with interest, from future earnings. Passports are withheld as security against the loan, and sometimes workers are charged additional fees if they want to change workplaces. They are typically housed in overcrowded dormitories and survive on substandard food.
“With deductions being made for their loans as well as for housing and food, workers are forced to work extremely long hours. Is it any wonder then many of these young migrant workers suffer from inadequate sleep and health disorders, including malnutrition. Without identity documents, owing money to brokers, tied to fixed contracts and far from home these workers are in reality bonded slaves.
“Today trafficked migrant workers are among those most badly affected by the economic crisis. Losing their jobs leaves them unable to pay off their debts, and they are sometimes left stranded, unable to return home, when the factories where they worked suddenly close down.
“Migrant garment workers are not found only in Amman, Kuala Lumpur or Port Louis. They are just as likely to be found in the backstreets of Barcelona, Manchester or Buenos Aires, where ruthless employers strive to undercut producers in low-wage countries.
“Earlier this year a Manchester sweatshop producing for high street brands was exposed for its exploitation of workers. The factory employed mostly illegal immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan who were earning a little more than half the minimum wage and working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. The factory was housed in an old Victorian mill and working conditions inside were more reminiscent of 1909 than 2009.
“Though some accuse migrant workers of taking local jobs and driving down wages, the reality is that they generally take jobs that no one else is available or willing to take. In Romania, for instance, wages in the industry are so low that local workers have abandoned the industry which now relies on an influx of migrant labour from China or Bangladesh.
“With many brands and retailers turning a blind eye to abuses in their supply chain, the goods made by these workers find their way to every high street and shopping mall in Europe and North America.