Why we shouldn't be settling for minimum wage: The difference between a living and minimum wage.
The minimum wage for garment factory workers in Bangladesh, was raised by 51% in December 2018. You may read this and consider it a huge win, a giant success, and complete accomplishment for Bangladeshi garment workers. Sure, it’s a huge step in the right direction, but rather than leap for joy, we’re unimpressed.
A minimum wage is not humane. A minimum wage does not represent a fair compensation for making clothes, working 100+ hours of overtime every month, all while being exposed to unsafe and unpleasant working conditions. A minimum wage is not something for fashion companies to be proud of.
A minimum wage keeps a fashion company above the law; a living wage keeps a fashion company respectful of its people.
It’s important, before we discuss this issue further, to define a minimum wage and living wage.
What is a minimum wage?
A minimum wage is the lowest legal requirement that employers can legally pay their employees. The figure for each country is determined by factors like poverty thresholds, and socioeconomic indicators (i.e. inflation).
What is a living wage?
A living wage is voluntary; there is no obligation for an employer to pay it. A living wage is a guideline for the approximate amount of money a worker should earn per hour or month, in order to be able to cover basic expenses, e.g. food, housing, transportation, and childcare.
THE ISSUE IS OURS
You would think, from these definitions, a living wage should really be the minimum wage. How can anyone think a minimum wage is okay for an individual to be paid while they work extravagant overtime hours (a common expectation in the garment industry), and struggle to buy enough food to feel energy at work, let alone feed their children?
The truth surrounding the living and minimum wage discussion, is a difficult concept to get your head around when we’re so used to the term minimum wage being something to celebrate in the fashion industry. Yay, people in third world countries are being paid a really small amount of money that doesn’t actually allow them to feed their families or house themselves! But thank god I’ve got the latest H&M skirt at 50% off. That’s right, the minimum wage is reflected in how cheap we can buy clothes at checkout. This issue isn’t far removed from our everyday habits.
WE SHOULDN’T SETTLE
It seems as though fashion brands, even those who claim to be ‘ethical’, get away with rattling off their code of ethics, and explaining how well they adhere to minimum wage laws through fluffy language that tricks us all. If I had a dollar for every time a company told me “Our actions follow the applicable laws and regulations of the countries in which we are active” (quote from an actual email response), I’d have enough dollars to buy a flight to all of their head offices, and give them the death stare. Adhering to laws and regulations is not enough; these laws can be corrupt and unfair.
“Following the applicable laws and regulations” only means the company is meeting minimum wage laws, so that they don’t get busted for breaking the law. Whoopty do. Congratulations to you for not breaking the law, and sticking to the very lowest wage rate so you can produce clothes at miniscule costs, to make a massive profit.
We, the consumers, shouldn’t be okay with this. We should be asking companies how far beyond the minimum wage they are paying their workers, and what leave, health care, maternity care, overtime pay, and holiday pay they have set up to thank their workers for their incredible skills and work.
A minimum wage is a law requirement; a living wage is a human right.
SHOP WITH YOUR VALUES
Minimum wage rates may be growing, but as they grow, so does the living wage. The fashion industry has a long way to go until a living wage is recognised as THE minimum wage, but it’s not just up to fashion companies to make this decision on their own; it’s up to us.
As consumers, we have great power. We have the power to shop with our values. Do your values sit in supporting a law requirement, or a human right? You make the decision.
Shop our Brand Directory for brands who go above and beyond minimum wages.
Written by Kate Hall.