Stitched up? Fashion workers urge H&M to deliver living wage

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Employees work at a factory supplier of the H&M brand in Kandal province, Cambodia, December 12, 2018. (REUTERS)
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An employee works at a factory supplier of the H&M brand in Kandal province, Cambodia, December 12, 2018. (REUTERS)
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An employee works at a factory supplier of the H&M brand in Kandal province, Cambodia, December 12, 2018. (REUTERS)
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Employees work at a factory supplier of the H&M brand in Kandal province, Cambodia, December 12, 2018. (REUTERS)
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Employees work at a factory supplier of the H&M brand in Kandal province, Cambodia, December 12, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 December 2018
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Stitched up? Fashion workers urge H&M to deliver living wage

  • While wages are rising on factory floors worldwide, David Savman, H&M’s global head of production, said that the number of factory workers receiving a living wage remained at “zero”

PHNOM PENH: In an industry riddled with poor health, abuse and labor exploitation, Yim Srey Neang and her colleagues are pleased to have garment factory jobs that are relatively stable and safe.
They speak highly of their employers as representatives of 4,000 people toiling in a factory that supplies to fashion giant H&M from the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
But when conversation turns to the so-called “fair living wage,” the tone shifts: several factory workers begin firing off laundry lists of life’s necessities — food, shelter, education, health care — and their prices in an onslaught of discontent.
“No, it’s not fair,” Srey Neang said on a tour of the factory organized by H&M, the world’s second biggest fashion retailer with more than 4,800 stories located in 71 countries.
“Our salary does not allow us to save money — it’s barely enough to live.”
Srey Neang is one of 1.6 million people worldwide working in factories that supply H&M — part of a global fashion industry that employs at least 60 million people — according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO).
In an industry fueled by cheap labor — mainly young women — the concept of a fair living wage aims for workers to move beyond living from paycheck to paycheck, where a single accident or emergency can plunge a family into financial crisis.
In 2013, H&M pledged to overhaul its supply chain — seven months after poor conditions in the textile industry grabbed global attention when Rana Plaza, a seven-story commercial building in Bangladesh, collapsed — killing 1,130-odd people.
Consumers and campaigners demanded action, but five years on the Swedish retailer — which reported a profit after tax of about $1.8 billion for 2017 — is still wrestling with how to ensure a greater share goes to the workers making its clothes.
While wages are rising on factory floors worldwide, David Savman, H&M’s global head of production, said that the number of factory workers receiving a living wage remained at “zero.”
“Until workers’ unions and manufacturers agree on a figure, we do not know what a fair living wage is,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during the factory visit.
Some observers call for individual brands to narrow focus and take direct action to increase wages in their own supply chain, but Savman said such an approach would be unsustainable.
“We don’t want to create an isolated bubble of fairness,” he said, adding that H&M wanted to see collective bargaining, where representatives of workers and employers negotiate a wage floor.
“We want to see frameworks put in place to raise standards across the entire industry — frameworks that will remain in a market after we pull out.”

NEW FASHIONED
H&M’s 2013 vow to tackle a problem that has been discussed for decades was a first for the textile industry — a five-year plan to overhaul pay structures and give workers more of a say.
Five years on, at their “Fair Living Wage Summit” in Phnom Penh last week, H&M reported that it had exceeded targets for workers who had been educated on how to earn more and for employees who could elect their representatives.
The Microfinance Organization, a US-based non-profit, surveyed 180 factory staff in Bangladesh — H&M’s second largest source market — and found that workers in the Swedish giant’s supply chain were earning more than workers in other factories.
Those workers reported spending $8 more on food each month, being less burdened by debt and in better health.
But at an average of 49 cents an hour, many staff in H&M’s supply chain were still earning hourly rates that violate Bangladeshi labor laws, and union membership was “almost non-existent across the full sample,” according to the study.
H&M says it wants workers at the negotiating table, head-to-head with factory bosses and without the influence of governments, whose interests generally lie in keeping wages low.
Factory bosses are rightfully fearful of this, Savman said, so H&M has committed to “ringfencing” a living wage — removing wages from their purchasing negotiations with factory owners and covering any fluctuations that occur.
“We want to insulate them from labor costs so that they are more confident to come to the table,” he said.

NO EXCUSES
Cambodia’s garment industry has been overhauled in recent years — with the monthly minimum wage set to rise to $182 next year from $61 in 2012.
Yet a survey of 41 garment workers by the Center for the Alliance of Labor and Human Rights found that while the average wage was significantly higher than the minimum, workers were still earning less than $1 an hour — and living month-to-month.
Moeun Tola, the charity’s executive director, called for major brands to stop making excuses and improve workers’ pay.
“If H&M really wants to pay a living wage, they can go directly to their supplier and make an agreement,” he said, adding that this could encourage competitors to follow suit.
A review of H&M’s tactics by the Ethical Trading Initiative, however, found that it could not be fully effective without an increase in workers’ bargaining ability at factory level, more transparent pay structures, and better purchasing practices.
William Conklin, Cambodia country head for the Solidarity Center, a US-based nonprofit promoting workers’ rights, said that while H&M deserved credit above other brands who were “doing nothing,” it now had the chance to be a “trend-setter.”
“So what if workers in their (H&M) factories are paid better than other factories? They’d have a steady supply of labor,” Conklin said. “It’s not an excuse for not moving ahead.”
The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an advocacy group, has marked $480 as a fair monthly living wage in Cambodia, while a group of Cambodian unions have called for a $225 minimum wage from 2019.
“H&M can reject those figures, that’s fine, but they need to come up with a counter figure and act,” Tola said, pointing out that many workers in the country were living with no safety net.
“A garment workers only needs to have one accident or one serious illness in the family and the whole salary is gone,” he added. “They are very vulnerable. What happens next?”


Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

A woman poses for a photo among poppies in bloom on the hills of Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California, on March 8, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2019
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Tens of thousands converge on California ‘poppy apocalypse’

  • More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

LAKE ELSINORE, California: Like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz,” the Southern California city of Lake Elsinore is being overwhelmed by the power of the poppies.
About 150,000 people over the weekend flocked to see this year’s rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near the city of about 60,000 residents, about a 90-minute drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles.
Interstate 15 was a parking lot. People fainted in the heat; a dog romping through the fields was bitten by a rattlesnake.
A vibrant field of poppies lures Dorothy into a trap in the “Wizard of Oz” when the wicked witch, acknowledging that no one can resist their beauty, poisons the wildflowers and she slips into a fatal slumber until the good witch reverses the spell.
Lake Elsinore had tried to prepare for the crush of people drawn by the super bloom, a rare occurrence that usually happens about once a decade because it requires a wet winter and warm temperatures that stay above freezing.
It offered a free shuttle service to the top viewing spots, but it wasn’t enough.
Sunday traffic got so bad that Lake Elsinore officials requested law enforcement assistance from neighboring jurisdictions. At one point, the city pulled down the curtain and closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon.
“It was insane, absolutely insane,” said Mayor Steve Manos, who described it as a “poppy apocalypse.”
By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened.
And people were streaming in again.
Young and old visitors to the Lake Elsinore area seemed equally enchanted as they snapped selfies against the natural carpet of iridescent orange.
Some contacted friends and family on video calls so they could share the beauty in real time. Artists propped canvasses on the side of the trail to paint the super bloom, while drones buzzed overhead.
Patty Bishop, 48, of nearby Lake Forest, was on her second visit. The native Californian had never seen such an explosion of color from the state flower. She battled traffic Sunday but that didn’t deter her from going back Monday for another look. She got there at sunrise and stayed for hours.
“There’s been so many in just one area,” she said. “I think that’s probably the main reason why I’m out here personally is because it’s so beautiful.”
Stephen Kim and his girlfriend got to Lake Elsinore even before sunrise Sunday to beat the crowds but there were already hundreds of people.
The two wedding photographers hiked on the designated trails with an engaged couple to do a photo shoot with the flowers in the background, but they were upset to see so many people going off-trail and so much garbage. They picked up as many discarded water bottles as they could carry.
“You see this beautiful pristine photo of nature but then you look to the left and there’s plastic Starbucks cups and water bottles on the trail and selfie sticks and people having road rage because some people were walking slower,” said Kim, 24, of Carlsbad.
Andy Macuga, honorary mayor of the desert town of Borrego Springs, another wildflower hotspot, said he feels for Lake Elsinore.
In 2017, a rain-fed super bloom brought in more than a half-million visitors to the town of 3,500. Restaurants ran out of food. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Traffic backed up on a single road for 20 miles (32 kilometers).
The city is again experiencing a super bloom.
The crowds are back. Hotels are full. More than 6,000 people on a recent Saturday stopped at the visitor’s center at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest park with 1,000 square miles (2,590 sq. kilometers).
But it helps that the masses of blooms are appearing in several different areas this time, and some sections are fading, while others are lighting up with flowers, helping to disperse the crowds a bit.
Most importantly, Macuga said, the town’s businesses prepared this time as if a major storm was about to hit. His restaurant, Carlee’s, is averaging more than 550 meals a day, compared to 300 on a normal March day.
“We were completely caught off guard in 2017 because it was the first time that we had had a flower season like this with social media,” he said. “It helps now knowing what’s coming.”