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Human-Rights

When money meets human-rights (II/II): Some Minimum Wage Reality from Europe & the US

Minimum Wage vs. Living Wage This is the second of a 2-post series looking at issues related to minimum and living wage. The first post scratched the surface of the topic in light of the 2010 wage riots in Bangladesh. This second post will look inwards to what is happening in Europe.

Latest since Channel 4′s undercover program ‘Dispatches: Fashion’s Dirty Secrets‘ (November 2010) the UK as awoken to the tough reality that sweatshops and less-than-optimal labour conditions are not the exclusive domain of cheap overseas outsourcing destinations, but rather also exists right here, right under our noses. Not that it was the first time that a similar issue was raised, as this 2009 BBC article about Primark proves, but it was the first time that the wider public took note. Possibly because the principle brands involved were not self-confessing dead-cheap retailers, but rather those that situate themselves in the upper part of the high-street retail section. Icons of the British high-street were involved and blamed by name as it were.

Not that I consider Britain to be any special (neither in the good nor in the bad) in this context, but something is to be said about investigative journalism. I know that in central Japan’s Gifu prefecture, thousands of Chinese and 2nd generation Japanese Brazilian immigrants are labouring day in day out in wee, little, tiny workshops under conditions that are in direct competition to what we know from places like China. I assume that the same holds true for the textile belts – or what remains of them – of ‘international’ cities such as Madrid, Barcelona (e.g. here and here), Milan, Florence (see this article about Prato’s Chinese community), Amsterdam, Paris (here), Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, Geneva.

One aspect of the equation is (illegal) immigration, generally coupled with human trafficking as most of the above articles point out. Once these people have arrived in Europe, no matter through what means or channels, they need to survive, but their situation opens every door imaginable to exploitation. Sweatshop labour is but one ‘option’, and considering alternatives, sadly not even the worst of them all. These cases are often talked about, and cause a storm of indignation when they come to light.

But there are other, less evident but equally striking cases.
Interns for one. While the remainder of Europe leads a battle against unpaid work experiences and internships, requiring interns to be paid at least minimum wage, in the UK even MPs habitually take on unpaid interns. Seen and being seen is what the game is about, and big names on a CV could mean ‘make it or break it’. The same is completely applicable to the UK fashion industry: Most entry level positions (pre-tax rated at about £17k which is roughly the equivalent to minimum wage) have been down graded to ‘internships’, which may or may not provide a travel-and-lunch allowance of to £10 (or less) per day. Again, it’s the old game: Why pay for it if you can get it for free?
Although to be fair, the ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ fashion industry is no exception, and does NOT live up to their sustainable/ethical claims at all. Example: I have a friend who is currently doing not one, but two(!) internships with 2 different, very well known ‘ethical’ designers. One of the internships is with a designer that could even be considered a fashion icon (and no, its not Vivienne Westwood). And do I have to mention it? This friend, a recent master program graduate from the London College of Fashion, is doing the work for free, and barely paid an allowance, working in whatever little spare time that remains to try and make at least some money.
My friend is not an exception. I know by name, and often in person, numerous designers and ethical fashion organisations that unfortunately adhere to the same UNethical standards when it comes to interns specifically, or fair pay for work generally. And I have no doubt they know, too, but excuses are always easy to go around.

And finally, there is the issue of living cost vs. minimum salary in places like London, where the minimum wage is not enough to live on – unless you work 60 hours a week or more – , but too much not to try. University graduates – IF they find a paid job in a fashion-near industry – are paid what people on the shop floor of the same brand are being paid. Minimum wage. It just happens that many of those on the shop floor are graduates from southern or eastern European universities (don’t believe me? ask around …), whereas those in the entrance level positions tend to be graduates of UK universities. Again: Why pay fair wages, if you can get it (nearly) for free? Making use of other’s raw need for survival is something we’re good at in Europe.
Closing the circle: Illegal immigrants are in vulnerable position due to their legal status, but the bare requirement of survival triggers also Europeans to migrate, and land in nearly as exploited situations. Disrespect of the human kind, after all does not know borders. We can see it at our every step, every day – if we care to.

PlanATo wrap it all up:
Cheap labour, underpaid labour, and minimum salaries that in reality are not high enough for a living, are as common in Europe (and the US, for that matter) as they are abroad in so called ‘developing’ countries. But, it is no doubt easier to finger point to what is happening abroad – without actually having a productive impact in most cases – rather then to ‘get dirty’ and sort out the situation closer to one’s own front door. And as it happens, the fashion industry – from production to retail – is in this context in a desperate need to get its act together. In fact, we need a ‘Fair Labour Plan A’ for most of the European/UK brands and retailers that applies to their local staff, too. Asap.

This is the second of a 2-post series looking at issues related to minimum and living wage. The first post scratched the surface of the topic in light of the 2010 wage riots in Bangladesh. This second post will look inwards to what is happening in Europe.

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