image: H&M image: H&M

On the heels of Swedish fast fashion giant, H&M’s annual Recycling Week initiative, the latest in its expansive greenwashing efforts, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an alliance led by trade unions in the key garment producing countries in Asia, has teamed with The Center for Alliance of Labor & Human Rights and a number of other organizations, to release a report contributing new research collected through interviews with 251 workers engaged in H&M supply chains. The report, entitled, “Precarious Work in the H&M Global Value Chain,”  is one in of a series of reports, entitled “Workers Voices from the Global Supply Chain: A Report to the ILO 2016,” a larger investigation of production on conditions in H&M factories in Cambodia and India.

The executive summary of the report reads as follows. The report in its entirety may be seen here.

On Thursday, December 10, 2015, 6000 garment workers in Phnom Penh, Kampong Speu and Kampong Som organized to protest employment practices in global value chains headed by H&M and other key international retailers. Supported by the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), Cambodian workers sought fair wages and working conditions. In India, garment workers from six factories that produce for brands including H&M and Gap rallied in solidarity.

On May 4, 2016, these actions were joined by solidarity actions at H&M stores in 11 cities across the world. From diverse sites across the garment global production network (GPN), workers and their allies called upon brands, including H&M, to ensure their rights to earn a living wage, unionize without dismissal and resist labour law changes that undermine freedom of association, maintain poverty level minimum wages and facilitate flexible employment relations.

H&M operates in 61 markets with 3,900 stores; works with 900 suppliers representing 1,900 factories; and employs more than 116,000 employees across their global production network. (ILO 2014; Donaldson 2016a). H&M saw sales rise globally in 2015 and plans to open 425 new stores in 2016 (Donaldson 2016b). Brands like H&M wield the potential to transform working conditions through their supply chains. Recognizing their responsibility to uphold human rights at work, H&M has set themselves apart from other brands by committing to ensure fair living wages, safe workplaces and accountability for rights violations within their supply chains. These commitments stake a powerful corrective to high pressure sourcing models within the garment global production network that create overwhelming incentives for factories to reduce costs and speed production by ignoring labour standards.

According to a 2013 statement by the then global head of sustainability at H&M, Helena Helmersson, these measures will not impact consumer costs: “Wages are only one part of sourcing costs,” she explained. “We don’t think there will be any impact on prices” (Passariello 2013).

However, while projecting a public commitment to sustainability, results of H&M initiatives are yet to be seen—causing workers to question H&M’s commitment to decent work. As explained by Athit Kong, Vice President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CADWU):

“H&M’s PR rings hollow to workers who are struggling everyday to feed their families. A sustainability model that is put forth and wholly controlled by H&M but is not founded on genuine respect for organized workers and trade unions on the ground is never going to result in real change for H&M production workers. Instead, it serves as a public relations facade to cover up systemic abuse.”

In recent years, the status of H&M’s commitments to human rights at work has been the subject of numerous studies by labour unions, human rights organizations and their allies—ranging from the Clean Clothes Campaign to Human Rights Watch. H&M has actively engaged critiques, providing detailed responses to documentation of rights abuses in their supply chains. In the lead up to the 105th Session of the International Labour Conference, focused for the first time on Decent work in global supply chains, this report revisits the status of H&M’s commitments to decent work through the lens of rights at work as they are protected under International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions and other instruments.

Shedding light on gaps in implementation of H&M commitments, violations of international labour standards and challenges H&M may face in upholding commitments to decent work, this report contributes new research collected through interviews with 251 workers in Cambodia and India engaged in H&M supply chains. These recent findings, collected between August and October 2015, are situated in context of both previous studies on H&M supply chains in Cambodia and India and the broader context of the global production network.

 images: Asia Floor Wage images: Asia Floor Wage