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A View on Offshore Production

When the topic of working conditions in fashion production is raised in day-to-day conversations, most people around me have one of three reactions: The first group shy away from the conversation, feeling uncomfortable facing the problematic and systemic issue. Those who do engage often justify that lower cost of living in offshore countries allows for lower wages and cheaper price points. The other common response is the call to boycott products manufactured in countries with bad reputations. The most prominent example of this in recent history is the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh back in 2013. While these reactions aren’t totally invalid, the issue is a little more complicated than that.

Last week, Oxfam released the What She Makes report, an investigation into the cycle of poverty that traps garment workers in Vietnam and Bangladesh and provides recommendations for brands to combat the issue. In conjunction with this, the ABC interviewed chief executive at Oxfam, Dr Helen Szoke to break down the report.

As a passionate advocate for ethical fashion and someone who engages in social debate about the subject often, I find it super exciting to have a cold hard facts about the Australian industry published for the greater public to see. Likewise, it’s great to see mainstream media giving the topic the attention it deserves. It’s an upsetting but albeit eye-opening and necessary breath of fresh air amongst the usual frivolous portrayal of the fashion world seen in the media.

The desire to purchase Australian-made products is widespread amongst consumers, however many are deterred by the significant disparity in price between goods produced locally and offshore. Whilst I’m proud to make almost all of my products here in Brisbane, transparency and fair treatment of workers cannot be boiled to country of origin. It’s true - wages are lower in many other countries, reducing the cost of production significantly. The manufacturing industry in Australia is tiny, as we just don’t have the infrastructure available to achieve economies of scale. Many Australian companies have moved their production offshore in the last few decades to compete in the race for the lowest end price and capture the consumer’s attention.

There are many benefits to a global economy, including variety of products, competitive pricing and subsequent high quality standards (in theory). However the problem occurs when safe working conditions and fair wages are compromised in the pursuit of these ideals. The What She Makes report draws focus to the importance of the living wage - being the amount needed to cover food, healthcare, education, clothing, living costs and enough savings to escape the cycle of poverty. The Oxfam report used two global measurements for the living wage and found that 100% of workers in Bangladesh and 99% of workers in Vietnam earn below these standards.

Your first instinct is probably to boycott products manufactured in these countries. Whilst this is understandable, taking the industry away from these countries will reduce manufacturing industry jobs and do nothing to improve the livelihood of garment workers. We need to demand greater transparency and better conditions for these people. The power of the consumer on brand behaviour is already evident - this power can be used to demand transparency and payment of living wage for garment workers, locally and offshore. Well-researched, considered purchase decisions are key to the livelihood of the people that make our clothes and will encourage brands to follow suit. Consumer action could promote a shift from price and quantity focused business models to structures that account for social value and stakeholder wellbeing.

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By Kate Evans

 

Sources:

What She Makes – Made in Poverty: The true price of fashion

Oxfam reveals workers paid 55c an hour to supply major Australian fashion labels – Nkayla Afshariyan