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Sweat shops in Australia

When you go clothes shopping do you think about who made the clothes? Or, do you think only about the brand name?

Submitted 11/10/2005 By Christina Views 364169 Comments 25 Updated 8/30/2007

Photographer : Enrico Bianda

In Australia, there are 300,000 people making clothes for our major retailers, designers and suppliers of school uniforms, who work for between $2 and $3 an hour. Their basic rights are being violated. They have no or minimal entitlements (holidays, sick leave etc), work in conditions that risk their health and safety, and work long hours—up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week—to meet unrealistic deadlines.

The majority of these exploited employees work in metropolitan NSW and Victoria. They used to work in sweatshops—a factory or shop where workers are poorly paid and work under adverse conditions—but in recent times, with stricter controls on workers’ rights, sweatshops have started closing down. Instead, these employees work from home. They are called ‘outworkers’, also known as ‘homeworkers’.

Who are Australia’s outworkers?

Most outworkers are first generation migrant women who have difficulty speaking English and don’t know about their working rights in Australia. Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, Macedonian, Turkish and Arabic women are most likely to be outworkers. Sometimes other family members, such as children, help after school and on weekends so deadlines can be met.

In the past, the manufacturing industry employed a lot of children, usually between 13 and 16 years of age. However, in the 1950s the number of child factory workers fell because the school leaving age rose and parents could afford to keep their children in school longer. State laws today ensure that the health, safety and moral welfare of children at work are protected and that work does not adversely affect their education. However, these laws are difficult to enforce when children work in a home environment.

Number crunch

  • 47% of outworkers work more than 12 hours a day.
  • 73% of outworkers have one or more chronic injuries.
  • 75% of clothing companies have most of their clothes made by outworkers.

Why don’t laws prevent worker exploitation?

There are laws in Australia to prevent worker exploitation, such as minimum wage laws which set legal minimums for money paid to an employee per hour. The problem is enforcing these laws. Outworkers are often isolated and are not usually registered. They also often have a poor command of English, don’t know their rights or whom to contact, and are afraid to take action that may result in them losing their job.

What are people doing to stop sweatshop labour?

Changes to the outworker industry are coming about slowly, as public pressure increases. In 2002, the Retailers Ethical Clothing Code of Practice was introduced, making retailers, as well as manufacturers, responsible for the fair treatment of outworkers (accredited manufacturers display the ‘No SweatShop’ label). However, this code is voluntary, so although a number of Australian companies have signed part one of the code (agreeing to show their records), very few have signed part two (agreeing to pay minimum wages and provide safe work conditions etc). A more promising law to improve outworker conditions is the mandatory code for retailers, which began in NSW on 1 July 2005. This code will also be introduced into Victoria.

The Homeworkers Code of Practice:this code keeps an eye on those who employ outworkers to make sure their working rights are being met. It provides accreditation for retailers and suppliers who meet certain criteria under the code, such as:
  • outworkers are paid the correct award wage for each garment sewn
  • outworkers are covered by workers compensation
  • superannuation contributions are being paid.

With continued public pressure it seems likely that the exploitation of outworkers in Australia can be stopped. At the same time however, there is a need to help stop sweatshops and outworker exploitation overseas. The Australian manufacturing industry is declining in size. This is largely a result of cheaper labour being sourced from overseas, in countries that lack legislation/enforcement to protect workers. Australian companies import this produce and own sweatshops abroad. So, although the exploitation might not be occurring in Australia, we still support it elsewhere.

How do I know this?

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, ‘Labour special article—a century of change in the Australian labour market’, Year Book Australia 2002,

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission,

Fairwear Australia

Industrial Relations (Ethical Clothing Trades) Bill 2001(NSW),

No Sweat Shop 2005, About the Homeworkers Code of Practice,

NSW Office of Industrial Relations, Behind the label,

Textile Clothing and Footwear Union,

Workers Online 2002, ‘Councils armed to drown sweatshops’, Workers Online, 31 May,

Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Act 2003 (VIC),

Discuss Now

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masqueradings 20-Jul-2009

The concept of the 'sweat shop' is something I would love to see abolished in my spare time, but sadly I don't think that will be the case.

Call me cliche, but it's part of the reason I shop free trade whenever possible. It provides the opportunity for others to earn a better income then say what... $2 a day in some instances?

300,000 people in Australia earning $3 an hour or less is just wrong on so many levels. Currently going through an 'economic crisis', how are these people meant to survive?
I wouldn't be surprised either if these corporations offering such wages would claim to not be able to afford an increase in their wages either...



toldandretolddotcom 20-Jul-2008

Thats pretty crazy.

Not as bad as in china though.

2 dollars a day is above the poverty line.

Crazy that it happens in australia.

thats why we need a human rights act.



Tan 28-Jun-2008

It is just crazy that these people want to work and earn money and are getting paid so poorly... but then we have a majority of people that are on the dole in Australia sitting around at home doing nothing - as they please!! It is all wrong!



ethicool 14-Sep-2007

hey there Rach, thanks for the positive feedback, it is hard to stay positive sometimes! Very difficult to raise awareness of a brand like this, most shops wont touch it cos then customers will, like u, start to think about where the products are made. Any ideas fomr anyone about promoting ethiCooL, I'm more than welcome to ideas. I really want to make sure it kicks off, then I can offer more to the producers!
About Australia, you are spot on, Australian made does not mean sweatshop free! fairwear have a list on their website of producers who are accredited 'NO sweatshop' labels, and it is a shockingly small list! I wanted to make sure I supported Australian labels as well as global, so I use Blue gum, who are an accredited wholesaler. I don't know of a 'black ban' list as such but will ask around, UK and US seem to be miles ahead in this area, some of the people who've helped me out may know...



Rach 12-Sep-2007

ethicool good on you for trying to make a difference - best of luck with the label!

One of the biggest issues here is that Australians have this mentality that sweat shop activity only exists in Asia, when it's actually happening in our own backyard. The fact that there are 300,000 people earning between $2 and $3 an hour in Australia is absolutely astounding...

Previously consumers have been alerted to the fact that major retailers/producers such as Nike have been involved with sweat shop activity and voiced their concern about this, with some people boycotting the brand altogether. We need to educate consumers about the brands in Australia which are producing their goods unethically so that we can actually do something about it.

LauraFrog's question about a 'clean' list was quite a good idea - does anyone have a list of retailers/manufacturers who are engaging in sweat shop production? If we care about this issue then we need to make informed choices.