Labour rights: Understanding the issues

"We have to work overtime until 11pm or midnight everyday. The price they pay us per piece is so low, there is no point to us working such long hours. If our income was higher, I would have no complaints. But all we have now is exhaustion and a low income. Some of us do not even have enough money to spend on food. It is more than we can bear." – Garment worker in a factory supplying well-known sport brands including Nike, Fila, Adidas and Reebok.

International trade can bring much needed employment to the developing world and has the potential to allow workers to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. But many industries are failing in this potential and instead, workers struggle to earn a living and are forced to work long hours in terrible conditions.

Recent public pressure has forced the sportswear industry to recognise they share responsibility with suppliers for ensuring workers’ rights are respected. Most big international sportswear brands have adopted codes of conduct covering labour practices. But these have led to limited improvements and the brands are failing to acknowledge that demands for faster, more flexible and cheaper production in their supply chains undermine the very labour standards they claim to uphold.

In order to meet the demands of the sportswear brands, suppliers push employees to work faster and for longer periods whilst keeping wages as low as possible, frequently underpaying overtime, and cutting corners on health and safety and environmental standards.

  • "There's a girl who’s seven months pregnant and working ten hours a day," said one worker, "and as she has to make a lot of pieces per hour the employer doesn't let her go to the toilet. It's sheer torture for her, but she can't afford to lose her job." (Trading Away our Rights, 2004)

Despite appalling conditions, most workers have little alternative and so are desperate to keep their job. Typically any protests or attempts to bargain collectively to improve their working conditions are met with harassment, dismissal and threats of violence. An Adidas supplier in Indonesia recently sacked 30 union workers who took part in a legal strike for more pay (they currently receive as little as 60 cents an hour) so that they could meet dramatic rises in the cost of living.

In the absence of any real bargaining power, these workers are unable to negotiate meaningful and lasting improvements to their working conditions.

Oxfam believes that companies contracting out their manufacturing to factories in the developing world need to take a more active role to protect the rights of workers who make their products. Companies need to address their own purchasing practices such as pricing and delivery deadlines and work with their suppliers to improve conditions for the factory workers.

Oxfam is calling on companies to support worker’s rights to join trade unions, so that they can bargain collectively for decent wages and for working conditions which respect their dignity.

Lucy in Kenya

" This is a critical test for globalisation: can it create jobs that empower, rather than undermine, women as workers? So far it is failing."

Lucy, a Kenyan mother of two, sews the pockets onto children’s jeans destined for Wal-Mart in the United States, the world’s most successful retailer. Her factory, based in an export processing zone (EPZ) outside Nairobi, receives erratic, sub-contracted orders and must keep costs low and output high.