The women who make our R599 Cotton On jeans are living on only about R40 a day

An off-duty model spotted in New York.
An off-duty model spotted in New York.

If you walk through any local mall, you will without a doubt, happen upon at least three Australian retail outlets - one of which might be your favourite outlet to shop the latest must-haves. 

Think Forever New, Factorie, Supré, Country Road, Trenery, Witchery and the Cotton On group - which cult favourite store Typo is a part of - all Australian. These and other stores not yet availed to us in SA are the reason why Australia's fashion industry alone is a multi-billion dollar one - AU$23 (R320) billion to be exact.

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If ever I were to go on holiday in the not-so-distant future solely for retail purposes, I always told myself this retail mecca would be it. And any avid E! Fashion Bloggers watchers might probably agree too.

That was until a recent Oxfam report removed that Merino wool that had been pulled over my eyes by Australian fast fashion. This report revealed that women in Vietnam and Bangladesh who make clothes for this mega industry are living (barely) on basic wages of 51 cents (about R5) an hour. 

There's something rotten in the state of fashion

These women work in factories that produce clothes for stores such as Big W, Kmart, Target and Cotton On. Out of 470 garment workers interviewed in Bangladesh, 470 could not make ends meet, having to even skip meals - a literal and disheartening case of living below the breadline. 

Oxfam is dedicated to bettering the lives of the impoverished women who make the clothes we love (sometimes unbeknownst to us what happens behind the scenes) from big brands.

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This organisation's chief, Helen Szoke, explained the conditions that their investigation uncovered, saying there are "women who are unable to get treatment when they fall sick, workers who cannot afford to send their children to school, families that cannot make their pay stretch to put enough food on the table, people sleeping on floors in overcrowded houses, spiraling debts, mothers separated from their children – these are just some of the common realities of the failure of big brands to ensure the payment of living wages.” 

Such a stark contrast to the lives led by the consumers, even on the most basic level.

Some of the garment workers profiled during this investigation are as young as 21 years old, one of which is a single mother who works up to 12 hours a day, earning $169 (approximately R1600) a month and as a result, has had to send her baby back to her home village to be taken care of by her parents, The Guardian reported

To think R1 600 is an amount some might spend on just three items at any local Cotton On store in one visit, yet the hands who produce the goods would be empty if they were to spend any portion of that amount on fashion paraphernalia. 

Speaking of the shopping experience, the retail staff is in better financial standing.

Better here at home

A Cotton On staff member revealed to us that they earn around R30 per hour and work an average of eight hours. This means working the store floor can earn you R240 a day versus the factory workers' R40 a day.

But don't fret. Cotton On SA's group PR & Communications manager Tara Stretch reassured us that the Cotton On Group takes workers’ rights very seriously.

"The environments in which our products are made, the people who make them and the materials used are incredibly important to us and form a critical part of our commitment to operate ethically," she explains.

We know that our responsibility goes far beyond selling clothes

Tara further shared the following with us;

She says the Group is committed to the journey to paying a living wage.

"As a proud member of Action Collaboration Transformation (ACT) the Group is committed to working with fellow signatories towards the establishment of industry wide collective bargaining to create positive change to the way wages and working conditions are set.

"This ground-breaking agreement between retailers and trade unions exists to transform the garment and textile industry with a goal of achieving living wages for all workers. This will directly support the Group’s own journey toward paying fair wages."

You can read more about Cotton On Group's policy online here and more about ACT online as well.

Let's slow down fast fashion

So don't get me wrong, this is by no means a Cotton On witch-hunt - their Australian HQ is simply one example of the sometimes unfortunate processes of the fast fashion industry. 

In 2017, desperate Zara factory workers in Istanbul left notes on tags protesting their working conditions and unpaid wages. There were also reports in 2018 of abused H&M and GAP female garment workers in Asian factories. This is all part of a vicious cycle of demand and pressure for faster turnaround times because we are also consuming fashion just as fast.

The people - factory and store staff - who are most crucial to this industry's success are often undervalued, yet the "cruelty free" tag is trending globally. It seems the fashion industry's somewhat noble efforts to save the lives of animals has left out a very important part of the conversation - the people's lives.

Taking this back to Vietnam and Bangladesh then; if human beings are barely surviving in order to make a "living" by working in your factories, can you really say your merchandise is produced sans cruelty?

We can all say we'll boycott certain retail stores, but we all know their affordability and strategic marketing of mark-downs will have us back in there faster than you can spend R40. 

I guess in the mean time, we can do as the Brits are trying to do by thrifting a little more often. Alternatively, go on retail diets, where you only shop quarterly in order to dent the demand curve a wee bit. 

Cotton On, Kmart, Target and City Chic in Australia have also now recently announced plans to achieve a living wage for the workers in their supply chains.

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