Swedish fashion retailer H&M said on Tuesday it planned to have elected committees and proper pay structures for workers in its main supply factories across the world by 2018 in a bid to curb labor exploitation. Elin Astrom, head of H&M's Sustainability Program in India, said the clothing firm was aware of the exploitation of workers in the garment industry and was working on several initiatives with its main suppliers to improve worker conditions.
"We know that getting a job in the textile industry can be an important driver for independence for women. Many times it is the first paid job and can be a catalyst for positive change, but of course -- not by default," Astrom said at a United Nations event on women's economic empowerment. "We do face challenges ourselves within the industry when it comes to working conditions, excessive overtime, wages, etc. and we are trying to address this in several ways."
The fashion industry has come under increasing pressure to improve factory conditions and workers' rights, particularly after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Bangladesh four years ago, in which 1,136 people were killed. Many big fashion brands, including H&M, have been criticized for failing to check conditions of workers in their supply chains -- from poor health and safety standards to long working hours and low pay to not being allowed to form trade unions.
In May last year, a study by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (“AFWA”) found workers stitching clothes for H&M in factories in Delhi and Phnom Penh faced problems such as low wages, fixed-term contracts, forced overtime and loss of job if pregnant. The AFWA, a coalition of trade unions and labor rights groups, accused the Western high street retailer of failing on its commitments to clean up its supply chain.
Astrom said the fashion brand sources its apparel from factories across 25 countries and indirectly employs 1.6 million garment workers -- 64 percent of whom are women. "It is important to have responsible sourcing when it comes to the millions of jobs that we create throughout the supply chain," she said.
The company, she said, has strict expectations of suppliers through a code of conduct, but added that they faced challenges in making factory owners understand issues such as freedom of association and the need for workers' voices to be heard. She said the clothing retailer had set goals with its main suppliers to listen to workers, as well as pay scales that ensure adequate wages based on skill and experience.
"We do have capacity building programs to enable workers to raise their voices in a meaningful way with management. We have a goal with all our strategic suppliers to have democratically elected workers’ committees by 2018 as one step towards this," said Astrom. "We are also committed that every garment worker should earn enough to make a decent living and we want to ensure this across the industry."