Slave to fashion

Delve into the underbelly of Australia’s clothing industry and you’ll discover our very own sweatshops.


Credit: iStockphoto

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What are you wearing right now? Would it surprise you to discover that some of the most expensive, popular and fashionable threads are being produced in conditions similar to what we’d call a ‘sweatshop’ – right here in Australia?

Like it or not, our clothing industry is built on a foundation of homeworkers, outsourced on exploitative wages without sick leave, holiday pay or superannuation. But there are moves within the industry to encourage ethical practices and, as consumers, we have an important part to play in calling for change.

All stitched up

For over 20 years, Nguyet Nguyen worked 10 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week to finish the bulk orders from leading Australian-owned retail chains. “They pay you about $8 per garment and then charge hundreds of dollars for them,” she says.

In addition to long, lonely hours of work, Nguyen faced ongoing pressure to meet unreasonable deadlines. “Working alone from my garage, I did big orders of up to 1,000 garments, and I would be expected to complete it in just three weeks – and they were complicated patterns,” she recalls.

“Sometimes they’d threaten me and say if I didn’t finish on time I’d have to pay for the whole order. I’d have to sell my house to pay for that order! So there’s a lot of pressure on you to complete all the garments nicely and on time.”

Nguyen now works with the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, often translating Vietnamese to help other workers escape terrible working conditions and find alternative employment.

Emer Diviney is the national coordinator of Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), a business union initiative that provides independent accreditation and labelling of ethical manufacturers and brands.*

There is a long way to go, says Diviney. “Non-compliance with the federal legislation and industry-specific regulations is the norm, not the exception, in Australia.”

The labelling system rewards ethical businesses and educates consumers at the same time. “When most people think about sweatshops they think about distant countries such as China and India,” says Diviney. “So they’re often shocked to learn that poor wages and conditions are also a big problem right here as well.”

“Given the prevalence of poor labour conditions in the industry, when you pick up a garment in a shop – whether it’s an import or Australian-made, there is a very good chance that someone involved in its production has not received a legal wage,” she adds.

“The vast majority of homeworkers are women from non-English speaking backgrounds. They are often isolated and vulnerable and have little bargaining power.”

Sustainable wear

“Given the type of brands we often attract, there are a few accredited brands with interesting environmental perspectives about how fashion can be more sustainable,” says Diviney.

“The Social Studio is a social enterprise that trains newly arrived refugees in garment production, Their range is made from donated remnant fabrics.”

Other ECA-accredited brands with an eye on the environment include Jets Swimwear,and Otto & Spike, a Melbourne-based knitwear label that uses yarns from leftover stock and offcuts.

All three examples address the weighty issue of waste. “It’s estimated that up to 50 million kg of textile waste is collected annually by Australian clothing recyclers through charity bins and only a small portion of this is suitable for reuse or sale. The rest is sent to landfill,” says Diviney.

Look for the Ethical Clothing Australia label
(see right) on these brands:

Collette Dinnigan
Ginger & Smart
Lisa Ho
Otto & Spike
Poppets Schoolwear

For a full list of accredited brands and manufacturers, visit www.ethicalclothingaustralia.org.au.

*Emer Diviney was the national coordinator of Ethical Clothing Australia at the time this interview was conducted and the article was written. The national manager is now Simon McRae.