Image: H&M

“Our salary does not allow us to save money – it’s barely enough to live,” Srey Neang, who works in a garment factory that supplies to fashion giant H&M from the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, says. “No, it’s not fair,” Ms. Neang told Reuters reporters on a tour of the factory organized by H&M, the world’s second biggest fashion retailer with more than 4,800 stories located in 71 countries.

In an industry fueled by cheap labor – primarily from young women – “the concept of a fair living wage aims for workers to move beyond living from paycheck to paycheck, where a single accident or emergency can plunge a family into financial crisis, according to Reuters.

Despite a pledge in 2013 to overhaul pay structures within in supply chain, H&M – which routinely boasts about its sustainability efforts, including its use of recycled materials and its commitment to reducing carbon emissions, as part of a larger marketing campaign – is “still wrestling with how to ensure a greater share [of its annual profits, $1.8 billion for 2017] goes to the workers making its clothes.”

William Conklin, Cambodia country head for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based workers rights organization, said that while H&M deserved credit above other brands who were “doing nothing,” there is a lot of room for growth. Reuters notes that according to a survey of 180 factory workers in Bangladesh, H&M’s second largest source market, from workers rights organization Microfinance Organization, “workers in the Swedish giant’s supply chain were earning more than workers in other factories.” However, the average pay – 49 cents an hour – “violated Bangladeshi labor laws, and union membership was almost non-existent across the full sample.”

Practically speaking, how difficult will it be to ensure a living wage for the 1.6 million people worldwide working in factories that supply H&M? David Savman, H&M’s global head of production, says it is impossible “until workers’ unions and manufacturers agree on a [living wage] figure.”

Moeun Tola, the executive director for the Center for the Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, says it is much easier than that. “If H&M really wants to pay a living wage, they can go directly to their supplier and make an agreement,” he said, adding that this could encourage competitors to follow suit.