Center for Fair & Alternative Trade

Colorado State University

“The Failure to Promote Living Wages in the Garment Sector: Certification, Corporate Social Responsibility, Labeling, and other Efforts” by Robert Ross

Presented by Robert J. S. Ross, Professor of Sociology and Director of International Studies at Clark University.

On Wednesday, February 26th, 2014 Robert J. S. Ross, Professor of Sociology and Director of International Studies at Clark University and author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops, facilitated a discussion on ‘The Failure to Promote Living Wages in the Garment Sector: Certification, Corporate Social Responsibility, Labeling, and other Efforts’.

Focusing on the global garment industry, Ross explored recent civil society, government, and corporate responses to the poor working conditions found in sweatshop factories in many countries of the global South. Ross explained how the ‘race to the bottom,’ where factories around the world compete to offer the lowest cost goods, encourages garment factories to overlook worker health and safety concerns in their bid to keep contracts. Due to the fierce competition and pressure from buyers to keep costs low, labor standards are often undermined, leading to horrible tragedies as witnessed in recent years in garment factories in Bangladesh.

Ross identified two major methods to addressing poor labor conditions in the garment sector. The first, a ‘voluntaristic method’, involves standards and codes of conduct devised by businesses and nongovernmental organizations which companies can adopt to ‘self-proclaim’ their attentiveness to labor conditions. Standards, codes, and labels are then used to inform consumers who may choose to buy these products instead of other non-certified goods. Fairtrade certification is a good example of this approach. The second, a ‘contractual method’, involves a multi-frame industrial code that is based on national and international law, that holds health and safety values at its core, and most importantly, can be enforced. This means corporations can be held accountable for their actions.

Ross suggested that voluntaristic approaches have been largely ineffective in the garment industry and that contractual approaches linked to ‘hard law’ are required to bolster labor standards and rights. His research finds that workers in the garment industry need the ‘freedom to associate’ so they have a platform to voice concerns. As Ross explained, it is only through ‘hard law’ that labor rights can be guaranteed and local labor standard violations be adjudicated through the courts.

The CFAT seminar group discussed Ross’ assertions, seeking to better understand the strengths and weakness of voluntaristic and contractual approaches. The Alta Gracia project – a Workers Rights Consortium and student based ‘living wage apparel’ manufacturing effort – was raised as an example of a voluntaristic approach in the garment industry that is linked to unionization efforts and legal improvements for workers.  Although the group agreed that this case successfully applied both voluntarist and contractual approaches, it is a relatively small scale experiment. The seminar group questioned whether the mass-market garment industry that creates ‘fast fashion’ would be able to apply the same conditions.

In closing, Ross and the group discussed recent fair trade efforts to use certification to improve working conditions in the garment sector. While there is no doubt that much needs to be done to ensure fair wages and decent work conditions, the group was unsure whether voluntary fair trade certification could foster the major organizational and legal changes needed in the garment sector to avoid the types of tragedies recently witnessed in Bangladesh.