Monday, July 16, 2012


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NOTE: This article was written for and published in Catalyst Magazine.


In light of changing global trends, the Australian textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) industry is facing a moral dilemma. Many Australian companies are attempting to cut the costs of manufacturing clothing domestically in order to remain competitive against companies that take advantage of access to cheap labour offshore. The balancing act, for ethical companies, is trying to compete in the ever-changing and competitive global market, whilst also ensuring that the rights of workers are not compromised.

Like many serious issues, the issue of outworkers’ rights has gained attention in the media since the profit of many businesses has potentially been put at risk. The recent passing of the Fair Work Amendment Bill on 22nd March 2012 has sparked much discussion amongst industry based groups and individuals, and has highlighted that outworkers are some of the most vulnerable workers in our country. Many outworkers have little knowledge of Australian systems and the English language, which means they are often uneducated of their rights as Australian workers and are not given the working conditions that they are entitled to.

The highest numbers of outworkers are originally from Vietnam; however Eloise Bishop from Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) advises that ‘more outworkers from African nations and the Middle East are being reported due to the higher rates of refugees and those on assisted visas coming from these countries’. Working from their homes and garages, outworkers make clothing for Australian designers, fashion retailers, and uniform suppliers and we, as consumers are blissfully unaware of the conditions under which this clothing is made. The sad reality is that local outworkers often face extremely long work hours, isolation, occupational health & safety issues, irregular flows of work, disruption to family life, and powerlessness to speak out about issues due to fear of losing work altogether.

In an interview with Michele O’Neil, the National Secretary of TCFUA, Michele stated that whilst the TCF industry has some really reputable companies in it, some companies ‘go to extraordinary lengths to exploit workers and keep workers’ conditions below legal minimum.’ Companies often distance themselves from the exploitation of outworkers, arguing that it is the contractor’s responsibility to ensure they are treated properly. Ultimately, if companies are going to profit from their goods, they should not be able to distance themselves from Australia’s laws and should ensure that these laws are being met throughout the entire supply chain.

The FairWear Campaign is a passionate network of Australian community members, activists, and community organisations advocating for the rights of sweatshop workers and home-based outworkers. They argue that by turning a blind eye to what is happening in their supply chains, clothing companies are effectively complicit in maintaining the power imbalance and exploitation within the industry.

Ethical Clothing Australia accredited brands are proving that companies can include ethics in their business models and still produce aesthetically pleasing and good quality clothing. The Australian brand ‘Nobody’ for example is amongst more than 60 ECA accredited labels and actively promotes its brand as being Australian made, fair and ethical. ECA accredited brands highlight that regulation can in fact provide opportunities on a business level, as they appeal to the increasing number of consumers that are conscious of buying ethical products.  

The label on an item of clothing is very powerful in the sense that it dictates the sizing of the garment, the material it is made out of, which country it comes from and how much it costs. It could be argued that more detailed labelling would potentially change the nature of clothes shopping and plant an ethical seed in the consumer’s mind. RMIT University student, Mitchell Jenkins, supports this notion by suggesting that it be 'made mandatory on a retail level for Australian made garments to carry a detailing of their construction. That way, customers would be forced to apply ethics to the decision of purchase and ignorance would no longer be the problem’. This was the sentiment behind ECA’s “Meet Your Maker Campaign”, which was launched in October 2011 and aimed to connect consumers with the makers behind the garments they purchase.

The term ‘Made in Australia’ only indicates that the product has been made here in Australia and more than 50% of the cost of making it has occurred here. This does not indicate that those making the clothing here in Australia were treated fairly, given the legal award rate and/or acceptable working conditions. With this in mind, it is important for companies to be transparent and to openly provide the conditions under which their clothing is made, as a lack of transparency is the driving force behind potentially unethical consumption habits, not a lack of compassion.

We as consumers have the power to change the nature of the fashion industry, so before buying your next article of clothing, ask yourself “Do I know who made this and whether this label is truly ethical?”
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