Working conditions

The fashion industry brings much-needed employment to millions of people across the world. But too many people still work in hazardous conditions for low wages. This has to change. And it can.

If we challenge the systems, relationships and attitudes that perpetuate poor working conditions, we change things. If we turn the status quo on its head and rethink the industry – by making the supply chain transparent, by giving our workers a voice – we will create safe and fair working conditions that will enable people to thrive.

Here, Doug Cahn and Marsha Dickson, founders of Better Buying, introduce their online platform with the potential to transform relationships between buyers and suppliers.

And Susan Pick, founder of Yo Quiero Yo Puedo, explains how she's applying a tried-and-tested model to give Mexican garment workers a voice.

Woman working at a jeans factory in Puebla, Mexico

Woman working at a jeans factory in Puebla, Mexico

Cutting fabric in a garment factory in Puebla, Mexico

Woman doing quality inspection at a cut and sew factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Empowering garment workers in Mexico

Susan Pick

Founder,
Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo

"The only way to make a better life for yourself is by taking ownership of it." That's the lesson my parents taught me when I was young. It's one I've lived by ever since. But living in Mexico, I've come to realise that many people in this country don't believe they deserve a better life, or that they have the power to change it.

That's why I founded Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo 30 years ago to empower individuals to create better lives for themselves. The name means 'I want to. I can'. And, of course, it's a virtuous circle: human development is the fastest route to social and economic development.

We started our work in the 1980s with a programme to prevent unwanted pregnancies. We moved on to reducing drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, and then to increasing school attendance. We've run more than 60 programmes, nine of which have been applied nationally. We started working with C&A Foundation three years ago to take our programme to Mexico's garment industry.

Our approach is based on the Framework for Enabling Empowerment model. We train people in life skills like decision-making, self-reflection, empathy and social skills. Then we give people specific knowledge about things like labour rights. Another important part of our work involves teaching people to share what they've learned with others. This scales our work further.

With C&A Foundation, we started by reaching out to 20 factories and explaining the health and wellbeing issues among their employees – and the impact these have on their work. Fourteen of these companies opened their doors, and let us take 70 Area Managers through a 40-hour training course. Those participants then passed on what they'd learned to 1,039 people at 80 more businesses.

At first, the companies we approached didn't trust us. They were scared our training would make workers disobedient or even rebellious. But because our training helps employees approach their work more positively, it's actually had the opposite effect. On average, when an area manager's been on our course, garments produced with faults have dropped by 60%. And the amount of work days missed has gone down by 25%.

Now we're working on getting into even more factories. The more employees we can reach and train, the bigger the difference we can make. By empowering Mexican workers to create a better life for themselves, we have the potential to radically transform the social norms that prevent garment workers from playing their role in creating just and dignified working conditions.

Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo's reach

A training programme to improve the health and wellbeing of Mexican garment workers

Transforming relationships between buyers and suppliers

Doug Cahn & Marsha Dickson

Co-founders,
Better Buying

Although many fashion labels are committed to improving working conditions, factories still operate in ways that negatively affect the health and wellbeing of their employees. Many of those problems stem from brands' purchasing practices.

Late orders, missed payments and other such practices contribute to wage violations, abuse and excessive hours for workers. There's a growing awareness among brands and retailers that their own activities can have a negative knock-on effect further down the supply chain. But there's no comprehensive understanding or public visibility of the impacts that buyer practices can have.

Unsurprisingly, suppliers are wary of speaking out about these issues, even when companies ask for feedback. This lack of dialogue means many brands may not understand the root causes of poor working conditions. The conversations just haven't taken place.

Better Buying will act as an independent third party. For the first time ever, we're going to establish open, honest dialogue between brands and suppliers so they can resolve issues together. It's not about shifting power from one place to another. It's about creating a new playing field, where no single party can succeed without a more collaborative approach.

Through a web-based platform, Better Buying will give suppliers the chance to share information, thoughts and feedback about brands anonymously. Suppliers will rate brands on seven criteria, including payment, cost negotiation and forecasting.

We want to give brands a voice on the Better Buying forum too. We expect to have a section of the website where buyers and suppliers can explore solutions to reoccurring problems. Hopefully, this will open the door for more face-to-face collaboration between buyers and suppliers in ways that will benefit everybody.

We believe Better Buying has the potential to completely transform the relationship between suppliers and brands. Reforming purchasing practices is a sensitive topic for apparel companies that are successfully developing and sourcing products. After all, it's these practices that result in their primary source of revenue. But with decades of experience working to make supply chains fairer, we know that incremental improvement just won't cut it. To achieve lasting change, we have to create the foundations for conversations – even uncomfortable ones that haven't been possible before.

Solutions we focused on to improve working conditions

Amplifying worker voice and participation in improving working conditions.

Mechanisms for tracing provenance of garments

Challenges

Power relations in the chain are unequal

Worker exploitation and unsafe working conditions persist

Developing systems to publicly disclose working conditions, purchasing practices and provenance of garments

Our results in 2015

Our programmes directly touched 17,247 workers: