This past week provided stark reminders for apparel retailers and their suppliers on the realities of chasing the lowest cost producer, and of the blowback to the brand and its consideration of social responsibility.
Two different yet disturbing incidents involving suppliers located in the country of Myanmar have came to light.
Reuters reported that workers of a Chinese-owned factory making clothes for Swedish fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz, conducted what was described as a violent demonstration that literally destroyed the production line of the factory. According to the Reuters report, production at Hangzhou-Tex Garment (Myanmar) Company, one of 40 H&M suppliers in that country, have been halted since February 9, nearly a month to-date. The worker dispute started with a strike in late January following the termination of a local labor leader advocating for an improved performance review system and healthcare coverage. Video observed by Reuters described dozens of female workers physically assaulting a factory manager. In late February, hundreds of workers were reported as storming this factory and damaging facilities including machinery, computers, and surveillance cameras. The Chinese embassy in Myanmar described the incident as an “attack” and filed a “serious request” to local government authorities to hold those involved accountable.
H&M issued a statement indicating that it was deeply concerned about this recent conflict and is monitoring the situation closely to include dialogue with concerned parties. What makes this news more troublesome is that H&M has been widely viewed as being outspoken among apparel retailers in promoting worker rights and fair wages. H&M was one of several retailers that demanded labor reforms and improved working conditions after the devastating 2012 Tazeen Fashion and 2013 Rana Plaza factory fires in Bangladesh that cumulatively killed upwards of 200 workers and injured over a thousand workers. In its reporting, Reuters cites H&M as ranking high in sustainability indexes.
A report also indicates that H&M has plans to influence apparel suppliers within the retailer’s supply chain to digitize payments for workers. A report conducted by the Better Than Cash Alliance indicates that 80 percent of factories in Bangladesh pay employees in cash notes. A review of 21 garment factories already utilizing digital payments pointed to significant savings in administrative time handing out cash to workers as well as some security for workers themselves with a more transparent way to receive money, provide more accurate data on wages paid, and afford greater economic independence to female workers.
Separately, a published report by The Wall Street Journal indicates that Europe private equity firm Apax Partners, which controls Germany based retailer Takko Holding, is facing questions from some influential investors after Takko Holding was found to be sourcing production at a garment factory in Myanmar that employed underage workers. Such findings were reported in February by the Dutch based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, known as SOMO. That report indicated that several apparel factories in Myanmar had unsafe working conditions, paid low wages or enforced long worker hours. Besides Takko, the SOMO report identified 12 factories utilized by six other Western retailers.
The WSJ report notes that Influential investors of Apax Partners include the California State Teachers Retirement System as well as the Greater Manchester Pension Fund. Each of these investors are highly sensitive to corporate social responsibility and human rights practices and each was vocal to express direct concerns about the latest reports.
Both Supply Chain Matters and apparel industry observers and participants continually point to an industry sourcing model where individual garment factories produce for multiple brands, and in some cases, factories will sub-contract to other factories often without the knowledge of the branded customer. As the WSJ concludes, brands certainly have influence in demanding certain working standards but have little direct control, other than continuous audits. Another ongoing challenge identified after the Bangladesh tragedies was factory owner access to capital to make necessary factory improvements to achieve minimal safety standards, with owners themselves seeking financial subsidies from apparel industry associations who source production in a particular country.
In the specific case of Myanmar, Reuters cites International Labor Standards data indicating that line worker wage rates average $63 monthly as compared to $90-$145 monthly wage rates in Vietnam and Cambodia. Yet in Myanmar, the government has yet to establish a standard for garment factory safety and labor practice standards.
Thus, the challenges of social responsibility continue to persist with the addition of a new lower-cost manufacturing region with a new set of workers becoming impacted by industry practices that weigh direct labor expense as a prime sourcing determinant. It would seem, though, that the risks get higher.
Most apparel retailers and brand producers have declared social responsibility statements and supporting practices. We all know that supply chains are driven by customer and consumer desires and needs, and in the case of apparel, that demand translates to continual variety and the lowest cost. Quality, or perceptions thereof, is sometimes overridden by the attraction of cost, when styles have a short market life.
We continue to submit that we, as consumers of apparel, have the ultimate voice on the weighting of social responsibility practices in the selection and consumption of our apparel choices.
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