Mere days after the Sri Lankan factories producing Beyoncé's much hyped collaboration were accused of exploiting workers, another high street clothing giant is at the centre of a labor storm.
Research from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance accuses Swedish retailer H&M of routinely exploiting workers across India and Cambodia. The report collates interviews with 251 workers in H&M supplier factories, and alleges numerous violations of international best practice in labor standards. The survey makes for uncomfortable reading, and paints a grim picture of life for the Asian and predominantly female workforce that stitches your cut-price clothing.
If you are a garment worker in an H&M supplier factory in Cambodia and India, becoming pregnant may well cause you to lose your job. The report alleges that employees from 11 out of 12 factories in Cambodia reported witnessing or experiencing termination of employment during pregnancy. All 50 workers surveyed from Indian supplier factories also told investigators that women were routinely fired from their jobs during pregnancies. Meanwhile, sexual harassment in the workplace is commonplace—in Cambodia alone, workers from nine out of 12 factories reported experiencing it in their workplaces.
Structural factors make it almost impossible for people to escape their low pay and insecure conditions. Almost all the factories in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh employed people on short-term contracts of one to three months, meaning that anyone who stepped out of line (for example, by asking for sick days, refusing overtime or, god forbid, are even a little late for work one day) might not have their contract renewed.
Those attempting to collectize and form unions to bargain for better pay and conditions will have their efforts stymied by factory owners working with the police, often in the most brutal ways possible. Meanwhile, poor wages (Cambodian factory employees receive around $140 dollars/month) keep them locked into dead-end jobs, unable to get the skills and training they need for higher paid and more secure work.
H&M often highlights its commitment to improving supply chain conditions, although local activists in both Cambodia and India dispute their claims. In a statement to Broadly, a spokesperson for the company described the report's allegations as an industry-wide situation. "H&M has been working actively for many years to help strengthen the textile workers' situation. The long-term process of improving the textile industry continues step by step. The continued presence of long-term, responsible buyers is vital to the future development of countries such as Cambodia and India, and we want to continue to contribute to increased improvements in these markets."
Indian labor activist Anannya Bhattacharjee says that H&M claims of supply chain sustainability are just empty rhetoric. "The thing we find with H&M is that they are superficially responsive—they'll answer phone calls and emails. But they're actually very non-transparent. They won't tell us which factories they're running pilot schemes in, and they've not been forthcoming about how they plan to introduce their living wage."
Bhattacharjee and Cambodia-based activist Tola Moeun also expressed serious concerns with the treatment of pregnant garment workers."This a huge problem in an industry dominated by female workers," Bhattacharjee explains. "They're forced to leave, or they're fired. And if they rejoin, they'll lose the seniority and benefits."
Moeun spoke of garment workers in Cambodian factories seeking illegal backstreet abortions for fear of losing their jobs. Abortion is legal in the country up to 12 weeks, but lack of education and medical access means that many women turn to the black market. "If you look at the workforce of the garment industry, it's 85 percent female, mostly of childbearing age. They're almost all on short-term contracts, and they can't tell their bosses they're pregnant because they won't renew their contract, so they seek abortions. And when we're talking about abortions in Cambodia, these aren't proper medical abortions."
The inability of workers to unionize is a major concern. "We're seeing the use of paramilitary forces against workers in Indonesia and Cambodia," Bhattacharjee explains. "We've had workers dying, workers injured or detained unfairly, and yet the brands are able to step in and get their production done whenever they want."
Though H&M does not explicitly ban unionization, the activists say that the company makes it near impossible for anyone to do so. Bhattacharjee explains that women are so overworked that they often lack the energy or time to come to a union meeting. "H&M's role should be to enable unionization, not to say 'go ahead and unionize' but make it difficult to do so. They have to show us that unionization is possible, if they really respect freedom of association."
For many workers, it's hard to see a way out. As Moeun outlines, "Short-term contracts are like one handcuff on your wrist. You have to accept all the terms that your employers set out; otherwise they won't renew your contract. The other handcuff is low wage. Workers can't live on $140 a month, so you have to work overtime.
"Even if you're not well enough, even if your children are sick, you have to force yourself to work, otherwise you can't meet your monthly expenses. You eat less; you work faster and longer hours. And if you want to liberate yourself from those handcuffs, by protesting for higher wages or better conditions, you're going to suffer."