Over the past few weeks, Beyoncé Knowles has been taking over our newspaper headlines. Unfortunately for her, the news was damning: “exposed- sweatshop ‘slaves’ earning just 44p an hour making ‘empowering’ Beyoncé clobber”.
According to the offending article, factory seamstresses employed at the Sri Lankan MAS Holdings factory are being illegally underpaid. Ivy Park has since responded, claiming the findings are unfounded because it pays over the legal minimum wage of 13,500 rupees a month.
The reaction from the media and the wider public has been telling. Many are pulling out the finer details against an imaginary yardstick measuring just how ‘ethical’ Beyonce’s clothing range is.
But, one thing is clear to me; the most imminent threat to factory worker welfare is the very accusations intended to shame retailers and brands like Ivy Park. Headlines like the above are both unhelpful and damaging to an industry that’s already suffering with its reputation. In fact the accusations are damaging to everyone involved - most of all the factory workers.
Just look at what happened in the 1990s when the United States pressured Bangladeshi companies to stop using child labour.
Unicef reports that, as a result, “children went looking for new sources of income, and found them in work such as stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution — all of them more hazardous and exploitative than garment production. In several cases, the mothers of dismissed children had to leave their jobs in order to look after their children.”
So, how can we genuinely improve worker welfare for factory staff all over the world? While we need to highlight companies who are following unethical practices, we should not be so quick to point the finger. We should be encouraging education before action. Keeping everyone in the loop, from the factory worker to the boardrooms of the clothing brands where core decisions are made. A culture of transparency can be created if we install the foundations for change.
Retailers need to properly engage with their supply chains to support the local community, help to develop new skills and mindsets, and support them to take ownership of change. But this won’t happen overnight – it’ll take time, patience and a little understanding.
Jason Hammond is chief commercial officer at supply chain firm Matrix that works with retailers including John Lewis and New Look.