Struggling to cover basic expenses such as food, housing and education, the roughly 40 million garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and other parts of Asia regularly risk physical violence, sexual harassment, starvation, and even death for the sake of cheap clothing. With painfully stark clarity, a new documentary from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance presents an overview of the plight of these workers and makes the case for suitable living wages throughout the region.
Living Wage Now! is a 30-minute film that features garment workers and their allies from across Asia who describe the practices that allow fashion brands to keep their prices low for Western consumers.
“My salary is very low, only 160 USD per month. That is just not enough to cover basic expenses,” a young Cambodian woman says at the start. “Like rent, my children’s education, food and water, repaying loans.”
The film unapologetically conveys the heart-wrenching realities of the garment industry in its current form: Workers tell stories of struggling to get by, followed by clips of people walking with full shopping bags in Europe; Vignettes of department store windows are contrasted with footage of military brutality against striking workers trying to fight for better wages and treatment.
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Factory workers in New Dehli describe barely scraping by. “We live in places without even proper roofs, in places barely fit for animals,” one of them says. An activist adds that it is common for up to five people to share a 7 by 7 foot room, and that 80- to 90-room buildings sometimes only have 7 or 8 toilets to share amongst everyone living there. Many are forced to work overtime, and overtime often becomes necessary due to the low wages.
“They opened fire on us; we ran for cover,” a woman recalls of a 2013 protest in which 4 protestors were killed and 27 others were injured. “All we did was ask for fair wages. They attacked us; they shot at us.”
Fires and the infamous Rana Plaza factory collapse are highlighted as large incidents that stemmed from risks that are still being taken in many facilities today. While such tragic events have sparked activist movements and brand commitments, progress has been slow. The documentary does not shy away from calling out specific brands, either. Ads from brands such as Primark, H&M, and Walmart play amidst activists’ explanations of what constitutes a living wage, why it is necessary, and why brands should take action.
“What we can say is that margins at the factory level are quite squeezed, so the ability to change the game is in the majority of cases lies with the brands that generate the biggest part of the profit,” Christa Luginbuhl, the Coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign in Switzerland, says in the film.
Major brands such as H&M and Walmart are frequently targeted for issues related to working conditions and wages. Last year, an investigation found H&M “dramatically behind schedule” in factory safety improvements despite that the company has joined industry groups to improve labor conditions and has received praise for other initiatives such as its use of more sustainable cotton and promotion of circular models. Walmart has also increased its focus on improving its supply chain, including by working with smallholder farmers and The Sustainability Consortium, but continues to face challenges both abroad and in the U.S. regarding living wages.
Despite their work, Bhattacharjee still has ample reason to ask, “Do you think that workers who are producing high-level fashion for the global market should be living like rats?”
She believes that a living wage for factory workers is the most effective way to make an impact. “We think that workers should be having a wholesome life, a dignified life for themselves and their families,” she says in the film. “And this is what Asia Floor Wage is about.”
The NGOs behind the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which includes members from both garment-producing countries in Asia and “consumer countries,” came together to discuss an international solution that could be implemented across all of the producer countries. The Asia Floor Wage is expressed in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), a currency set by the World Bank, and calculated based on 50 percent of monthly salary going towards food, 40 percent on housing, clothing, travel, children’s education and healthcare expenses, and 10 percent towards leisure and savings.
Ashim Roy, the Vice President of the New Trade Union Initiative, explains that the cross-border solution “addresses is the power of the global brands to relocate production from one country to another when they feel that the workers have made a demand or they see potential threat.”
Advocates of the Asia Floor Wage voice their support throughout the film. Ultimately - whether through this solution, another, or a combination - brands must take more impactful steps to provide workers with fair wages and the freedom to voice their grievances if modern slavery is to be eradicated within the garment industry.