H&M: Fashion’s Human Rights Faux Pas

In the midst of a thick smog and blistering heat, they stand in huddled masses on overcrowded trucks. The young women, in groups of around 20 or 30, are on their way to a new day at work in the Kandal province, only a short trip from the heart of Phnom Penh. Noticeably in pain, some stand pressed against the metal bars that form a fence-like structure around the truck, one that seems more suitable for transportation of materials or livestock than human beings. With snake-like movements, the loud and chaotic circus of Phnom Penh’s morning traffic slowly untangles, and the rusty vans carrying the women emerge on the highway. They are headed for the gates of large compounds, almost resembling prisons at first glance. The buildings are heavily guarded with extensive security, signaling that unwanted entry will not go unchallenged. Lined up along the highway in the small province of Kandal, these compounds comprise Cambodia’s most active garment factories, and as recent events over the past year have revealed, they are also the scene of grave crimes against human rights committed by fashion conglomerate H&M.

Behind the high fences and concrete walls, garments were being produced at extremely low costs, and at an explosive pace.[1] The competitive edge of the country’s growing export economy was being maintained through the attraction of foreign companies, eager to drive down the cost of labor to a bare minimum. However thick the concrete walls may be, an ugly truth – standing in stark contrast to the polished image of the Scandinavian fashion brand -has been revealed. For the past year, the number of stories has flourished in the international press. They have reported on exhausted workers fainting in masses, inhumane working conditions, painfully low salaries, and forced overtime. Moreover, these stories have revealed the moral corruption and ethical disconnect within the company, as well as brought to light the industry’s refusal to accept social responsibility for the mistreatment of its workers.

As the world’s second largest clothing manufacturer, H&M proudly displays its motto: “Fashion and quality at the best price.” With its high-profile designer collaborations, affordable prices, and rapidly changing collections, the brand stays constantly “in style” with the pulsating trends of the moment. Having moved from a traditional seasonal schedule to one that rotates every few weeks, their design team can create an edgy new piece for a collection, and only twenty days later, it can be available on the hanger in a store near you.[2]

Faster. Cheaper. Bigger. Better. The brand willingly caters to consumerism to please rising demand in high volume. The fact that fashionistas and family fathers alike can shop for their items of choice in the very same store means that H&M has become a budget-friendly favorite for customers across the globe. Like Ingmar Kamprand’s Ikea, it is a Swedish success story that seems almost too good to be true.

Newsflash: It is.

In the case of H&M, the business relies solely on an abundance of detached suppliers for the production of its latest trend items. This means that they have less control over the production process and are more vulnerable to exploitative practices by factory owners that pay workers disturbingly low wages – below what is even accepted as a bare minimum for survival. This outsourcing without proper oversight comes at a high cost. The reality is shocking and is not one to be ignored.

Over the discourse of the past year, there has been a great deal of upheaval in the Western press about the mass faintings that have taken place at M&V, one of H&M’s main suppliers. This largely followed after the release of the Swedish-produced documentary, “Kalla Fakta,” which revealed very disturbing working conditions in Cambodian factories. The documentary focused in particular on the numerous incidents of mass faintings, which are believed to have been directly related to the extremely rough working conditions within the factories. Accurate details on the number of incidents are hard to come by, as transparency and a lack of proper reporting has been a widespread issue for years, but it is predicted to be well above one thousand annually.

How is this possible? How can a company that claims to be both socially responsible and compliant with ethical guidelines bluntly ignore the fact that workers are on the brink of exhaustion because the $66 monthly wage does not sustain them?[1] How could they claim ignorance of the exploitative practices within their own value chain? Enter Western double standard and ignorance. In other words, let the blame game begin.

At a press conference in Stockholm before Christmas, H&M CEO Karl Johan Persson was placed in the hot seat while trying to explain the actions of the company: “We are doing more than others. Conditions could absolutely be better. Asian wages are low, but that way the economy will grow and they employ millions of workers. It’s about the country’s competitive power. It would have been much worse if we hadn’t been there.”[1] This may be true. Cambodia is, to date, heavily dependent on foreign direct investment, and the much-needed boost it gives to the country’s developing economy. However, that does not justify a failure to ensure working conditions compliant with human rights laws, and it certainly does not deem serious underpayment of workers as a necessary prerequisite for low-cost production.

That is inexcusable, no matter how much you try to justify it by claiming that the actions of others in the industry are much worse. Where is the moral backbone? Out of season? In choosing to depend solely on independent suppliers, businesses like H&M lose insight into the production process.  In this way, they become more vulnerable to incidents where exploitative factory owners pressure the workers to the brink of exhaustion. H&M needs to enforce tighter control over its suppliers by demanding stricter compliance with company policies and labor rights. In addition, the company should call for an increase in minimum wage to meet a “living wage” – one that is both fair and sufficient to cover basic needs, while still allowing some discretionary income. Though programs like Better Factories Cambodia, which are based on conventions of The International Labour Organization, business practices have become more transparent over the recent years. Through their work, they still provide brands classified, private information on the working conditions in the factories. This leaves it up to the company, in this instance H&M, to decide if they wish to take action or not. And when a nasty scandal hits the fan, critics blame the brand, and the brand in turn uses organizations like ILO BFC for cover, saying that they “were not made aware” or “did not know” of any human rights abuses occurring.

Having worked and lived in Cambodia over a longer period of time, my position on the issue is influenced by the severe poverty I witnessed every day. At the same time, I also experienced a country making vital steps towards greater economic development. Foreign trade plays a major part in this, and companies must realize that setting up shop in a developing country by extracting its material resources and buying its low cost labor comes with responsibilities. Moral havoc and finger pointing is not the solution – viable action is.

So this essentially boils down to a matter of choice, both for companies with begrimed business practices like H&M and for us as conscious consumers. Many big global companies in fashion such as Marks & Spencer and Inditex choose to outsource their production, but in contrast to H&M, they demand living wages for their workers and strictly monitor compliance by the factory owners. H&M can choose to follow this example. As consumers, we should also take a stand and decide whether we want to support companies that turn a blind eye while workers are being heavily exploited. As a young woman interested in fashion, I am disappointed by some actors within the industry that have chosen to completely ignore these disturbing truths and instead just trot along to whatever the dominant hype of the moment is. Quite recently the launch of exclusive collections by Margiela & Anna Della Russo for H&M attracted bloggers, editors and other dominant figures in fashion from around the world. These elaborate shows and events featured fashionistas and celebrities that, ironically, were busy posting pictures on Instagram on fully sponsored press trips, while the images of women being carried out of factories, seemingly lifeless, were circulating the media in Sweden and around the world.

My intention in writing this is not to lecture anyone or to portray myself as holier than thou, condemning consumerism and advocating for the use of all-around hemp products. Like many others, I am a student on a meager budget, and I enjoy purchasing inexpensive clothes that look nice. But if buying a 20-dollar party frock at H&M means supporting sustained abuses against women, I would rather spend my money elsewhere.

Ida Hatlebrekke
International Affairs ’15

 

[1] www.tv4play.se/program/kalla-fakta Swedish documentary sent on Swedish national television investigating the disturbing human rights abuses in Cambodia. Their investigative journalist travels to Cambodia and shines light on the production environment in H&M’s main supplier country.

 

[2] Inside the H&M fashion machine, by Sarah Raper Laranaudie – Time Magazine

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