Sustainability – Mixed Messages from High Street Retailer H&M
On the surface H&M seem to be making all the right noises; the H&M Conscious range, published sustainability reports available to view on their website, used-clothing banks in stores and a leading score in the latest Transparency Index. And yet a new report reveals workplace abuses at H&M supplier factories. The research, collected through interviews with 251 factory workers in Cambodia and India, finds that despite H&M widely-publicized commitments to protections across their supply chain, there are significant gaps in their implementation, leading to persistent rights violations in their factories.
In advance of next month’s International Labor Organization (ILO) conference in Geneva, the new report has been released by an international consortium of human and labor rights organizations. Athit Kong, Vice President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union said: “H&M proudly announced reduced overtimes, higher wages and increased worker satisfaction in the company’s living wage pilot programs. However, these outcomes are impossible to verify, as H&M has refused to disclose the names of these model factories or the methodology for determining wages.”
In the aftermath of industry-wide controversies around the prevalence of human rights and labor abuses spurred on by the anti-sweatshop and consumer-driven accountability movements in Europe and the United States, H&M released a number of initiatives aimed at improving working conditions in their supply chains. To date, the company’s participation in improving workplace conditions in their factories and in the industry as a whole have proved largely symbolic. As detailed in the report:
- 9 out of 11 H&M supplier factories in Phnom Penh surveyed continued to employ workers on fixed duration contracts, despite H&M’s stated commitment to change these policies. Illegal use of short-term contracts is common, despite the fact that threats of non-renewal undermine workers’ ability to demand safe workplaces, exercise their rights to freedom of association and refuse overtime work.
- Workers from 9 out of 12 factories surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment in their workplaces. Only 27 out of 201 workers expressed having knowledge of a mode of addressing harassment within their workplaces.
- Workers from 11 out of the 12 H&M supplier factories surveyed in Cambodia, who are predominantly women, reported witnessing or experiencing termination of employment during pregnancy. All 50 workers interviewed in H&M’s Indian supplier factories reported that women are fired from their jobs during a pregnancy.
- Despite signing a sustainability commitment in 2015 protecting payment of wages, H&M frequently fails to pay its workers both a living wage, which includes support for all family members, basic nutritional needs, and other basic needs including housing, health care, education and basic savings, or even basic minimum wages adherent to national regulations. Workers employed by H&M suppliers in India, for example, reported receiving inadequate compensation under Indian wage law.
Anannya Bhattacharjee of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance commented: “Our discoveries of precarious labor – work that is uncertain, unpredictable and risky for the worker – fits with our knowledge of the depth and extent of rights violations in the entire industry. Indeed, the sheer scale of rights violations we documented in Cambodian and Indian factories suggests that precarious labor is not limited to H&M specifically, nor to these these two countries. Rather, it shows that such abuses are fundamentally linked to the structure of the garment global value chain as a whole.”
(Image left demonstration outside H&M Times Square, New York earlier this year)
This report will no doubt be a huge blow to H&M as they continually strive to present their company in an ethical light. Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M states on the company website: “According to the World Bank, the textile industry is an important contributor to poverty reduction. But obviously, we cannot just lean back and be content with the fact that many jobs are being created. With our size and global presence, we are working to ensure that these jobs are good jobs and that the way we do business makes places better. So the question for us is not whether we should be present in developing countries, but how we do it. With that said, I want customers to feel proud of wearing clothes made in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, but also to make sustainability demands on the companies they shop from.”
“At the International Labor Conference, supply chain workers from across the globe will come together to urge the ILO to move forward with setting a global standard for supply chains that includes protections for wages, freedom of association, and migration,” said Sarita Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice. “These recommendations – which include, for the first time, an outline for an international, cross-border living wage – are essential in improving the lives of billions of workers in Asia, the United States, and worldwide. We can only hope that they will listen.”
This latest report is one in a series, entitled “Workers’ Voice from Global Supply Chains: A Report to the ILO 2016,” which will detail supply chain malpractices and recommendations to amend them. The group, which includes the international Asia Floor Wage Alliance, Jobs with Justice (USA), National Guestworker Alliance (USA) and the Society for Labour and Development (India) and the Clean Clothes Campaign (EU), will be at the ILO in Geneva to present their findings.