‘It is like hell’: Garment workers for Japanese brands say factory conditions violate their rights

8/3/19 - Saul Takahashi, former Japan researcher at BHRRC

'The factory has [safety regulations], but whether they enforce them is another question.'

The following account was given by workers at a garment factory in China supplying textile products to Fast Retailing, the Japanese parent company of the international brands Uniqlo and GU, to the group Human Rights Now in 2014.

It is just one example of countless reports of exploitation and other labour rights violations taking place in garment factories and other textile suppliers across the world:

“I work from early in the morning to 10 PM. Some days I have to work until 11 PM. I have to iron 600 to 700 shirts a day. However, [the international brand] only pays [approximately four US cents] per shirt. During busy times, I have to iron 900 shirts per day. [… ]

We are only paid for the number of shirts we iron. It is simply too little, but there is no way to ask for higher wages. [… ]

The factory has [safety regulations], but whether they enforce them is another question. Some workers do not wear protective gear while working, since the gear gets in the way. They do not know how dangerous the dying chemicals are. [… ] It is so hot that people sometimes faint on the factory floor. It is like hell.”

In this case, Fast Retailing took swift measures, securing action plans on the part of the relevant suppliers to make improvements, and publishing regular updates in several languages. However, concern remains high that for each case uncovered by NGOs and journalists there are many others throughout clothing supply chains that go undetected.

The textile industry has long been viewed as an easy way for developing economies to generate growth. Relatively unskilled and requiring little investment to start, the production and export of textile goods has been looked at as an effective stepping stone to industrialisation. This has resulted in many countries engaging in a race-to-the-bottom to attract international investment. 

Countries compete with each other to keep wages low and do away with protections for the environment and workers rights, or by not implementing regulations, so international brands will find them attractive sites for production. The result is a wide range of cheap fashion for consumers in the rich world - and horrendous rights abuses for the workers producing the clothes.   

Over the summer and autumn of 2018, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre collaborated with Human Rights Now in conducting a survey of the top 62 Japanese apparel companies, to gauge the extent of their measures to ensure that rights were protected throughout their businesses - both in international and domestic supply chains as well as in their own operations. 

The results, though hardly surprising, were disappointing. The survey shows that aside from a handful of companies, the apparel industry lags far behind in fulfilling its human rights responsibilities. 

Most disappointing of all was the low response rate. Despite repeated reminders, including over the phone, only one third of the companies responded to the survey: only half of the top ten companies, and only one third of the top thirty provided responses. Several companies told us that it was their policy not to respond to “surveys of this nature”, and some even simply hung up the phone. 

To be clear, these are not mom and pop stores - they are multi-million dollar companies in a major international industry. It is of grave concern that so many important companies did not see fit to provide information addressing NGOs’ concerns. 

Of the 21 companies that did respond, nine did not have human rights policies, or had policies that did not mention international standards or were otherwise inadequate. Three out of 21 had no human rights or related guidelines for their suppliers, and eight said they had no process in place to conduct human rights due diligence. 

At the same time there are signs of positive trends, in part a result of the survey. Some respondents indicated that they had recently adopted human rights policies and other processes in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. There is also an increasing awareness of issues in domestic supply chains, especially on foreign labour.

In addition, after the survey, the Japanese industry association appears to be moving towards discussing human rights standards, which is a welcome move.   

Nevertheless, much more progress is required. The 2018 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark gives Fast Retailing - one of the leading Japanese companies in this sector - a score of 28 out of 100.

This is more or less the international industry average, but it shows just how far Japanese companies - and the sector in general - have to go to tackle labour abuse in their supply chains.  

Follow us on Twitter @BHRRC