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.
Why don’t laws prevent worker exploitation?
- 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.
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, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/90a12181d8...
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, http://www.accc.gov.au
Fairwear Australia http://www.fairwear.org.au
Industrial Relations (Ethical Clothing Trades) Bill 2001(NSW), http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/nsw...
No Sweat Shop 2005, About the Homeworkers Code of Practice
NSW Office of Industrial Relations, Behind the label
Textile Clothing and Footwear Union, http://www.tcfua.org.au/Index.htm.
Workers Online 2002, ‘Councils armed to drown sweatshops’, Workers Online
, 31 May, http://workers.labor.net.au/138/news2_councils.html.
Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Act 2003 (VIC), http://www.workplace.gov.au/workplace/Category/Leg...