University of Technology Sydney: A legal guide to ethical and sustainable fashion

In March 1911, in a garment factory in Manhattan, over 100 people, mostly Jewish and Italian women migrants, some as young as 14, were trapped inside and died as the factory burnt to the floor. Management had locked the doors.

In the following years, women workers mobilised. Their protests catalysed major law reforms in the US which are still enjoyed today – social security, unemployment insurance, the abolition of child labour, minimum wages and the right to unionise.

Yet the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is alarmingly reminiscent of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in the Savar Upazila district of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which saw the death of 1,134 people, mostly young women, and over 2,500 injured.

Rana Plaza was home to factories manufacturing garments for renowned global brands, but the spotlight on this tragedy is now dimming. Years on, accountability for the resulting safety accords remains insufficient and many factories continue to escape scrutiny.

Consumers are increasingly looking for sustainable and ethical fashion. We believe these goals are inseparable from an industry which embraces gender justice. But gender justice cannot be achieved by consumer demand and boycotts alone. Instead, we need gender-responsive law reform.

Our new research sets out six ways to cut a more gender-just and sustainable fashion sector.

1. Accountability
The fashion sector’s gendered hierarchy is ingrained. Workers on the floor are largely female, while floor managers, security and factory owners are largely male.

Female workers are vulnerable to harassment, violence and exploitation. There is an absence of adequate complaint mechanisms and women often risk retaliation.

Accountability is needed not only in the countries producing garments, but also in countries where the garments are sold, and through all stages of the supply chain.

Modern Slavery Acts, including Australia’s 2018 law, establish reporting obligations for businesses, requiring them to report on the due diligence they have conducted with respect to potential risks of exploitation in their supply chains.

But accountability has to go beyond the current “naming and shaming” provisions.

Penalties should be imposed and used to fund victim compensation, not just for workplace injuries but also for workers who suffer gender-based harms.

2. A living wage
Minimum wages rarely equate to a living wage, one that affords a decent standard of living for the worker and her family.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals call for full and productive employment and decent work for all.

In factories, this would mean acknowledging a living wage is needed for workers to be able to afford food, water, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing and other essential needs. This needs to be coupled with an appreciation of how workers are impacted when rental prices outpace annual increases in the minimum wage.

Sustainable economic growth also requires financing the social security of workers including maternity leave, unemployment and disability insurance.

3. Community
Workers are often migrants who leave their children behind in the care of families.

Many garment-producing countries lack sufficient gender-responsive public services needed by women workers: decent public housing, street lighting and healthcare in close proximity to factories.

The Sustainable Development Goals ask for the recognition of the unequal share of unpaid care work borne by women. This impacts women workers’ lives outside the factory floor. Without this recognition, gendered labour will continue to sustain the global economy.

Women also face gender-based violence on and off the factory floor. Legislation is needed to protect workers from such violence in all the spaces in which they move, including the commute to and from work.

4. Taxation
Potential tax revenue is lost by governments in garment-producing countries through regulatory loopholes.

Rather than directly owning production factories, some companies claim to buy their products from “independent suppliers”. This arms-length principle eradicates the need for major retail brands to pay corporate tax in these countries.

This lost revenue has a disproportionate impact on women, including undermining the provision of gender-responsive public services. Comprehensive social protection schemes remain underfunded.

Reforms to eradicate these tax loopholes may see a notable increase in government revenue for garment-supply countries to fund these much needed services.

5. Representation and voice
Women make up the majority of garment workers, but their influence over corporate and government decision-making remains marginal.

Trade unions have improved representation, but frequently their approach to gender equality is piecemeal. Many women fashion workers remain un-unionised. As a result, fundamental concerns of women workers are often given inadequate attention.

The implementation of labour standards from the International Labour Organization could see more spaces carved out for women worker’s interests to be voiced and heard.

6. Responsible consumption
Consumer choice is often presented as the key to transforming the fashion industry. Consumers need persuading to make human rights-based decisions, in the same way they are persuaded by brand, quality and price.

Consumers may look for clothing labelled as “ethical fashion”, “organic” or “eco”, but shoppers are also wary of “greenwashing”.

While imperfect, the European Union’s proposal to make transparent the environmental footprint of clothing should enable stronger transparency on the environmental impact of fashion labels.

This transparency must also extend to human rights issues looking at how the clothing is produced.

Clearly law and fashion have much to gain from each other. But there has to be a more robust and effective solution than shifting accountability from corporations to the individual. A simple boycott may not be the best choice: instead contact your local MP and encourage them to care about and demand gender-responsive law reform.

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