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  Issue No 87 Official Organ of LaborNet 10 March 2001  




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Sweatshops – Beyond 2001

FairWear convenor Debbie Carstens looks over a unique partnership between churches and unions to end exploitation in the textile industry.


Debbie Carstens

The Fair Wear Campaign is caught between two conflicting sentiments at this point in time. On the one hand Fair Wear is hailed as one of the most successful campaigns in Australia in raising the profile of an issue and co-ordinating ongoing activism across many sectors. On the other hand, outworkers are asking "when is something going to change for us?". Despite all our best efforts, wages and conditions for outworkers on the ground have not yet improved.

The problem we face is that there is a culture of exploitation in the clothing industry in Australia. Many people are benefiting from that culture and they are powerful forces fighting against our efforts to bring Justice for Outworkers.

Looking through the history of Fair Wear we have had a series of highs and lows as we have campaigned against these powerful forces.

History - the highs and lows

The 'Homeworkers Code of Practice' was developed in 1996 during the Senate Inquiry into Outwork in the Clothing Industry. Retailers and manufacturers were to sign the Code to take some responsibility for the wages and conditions of the workers making their clothes. Some 15 companies, retailers and manufacturers had agreed to sign it, but none of them showed up for the signing ceremony in mid October. A late meeting the night before had decided to ride out the wave of negative publicity at the time, as they believed consumers would forget.

In response, we then moved quickly to launch Fair Wear in early December 1996 with a broad base of over 40 endorsing organisations. These included Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, Uniting Church in Australia, Mercy Foundation, Baptist Union of NSW, Good Shepherd Sisters, Asian Women at Work, Working Women's Centre, Textile Clothing and Footwear Union and NSW Labor Council. We commenced education and campaigns that would make sure consumers did not forget.

With a characteristic lack of support for the Code from retailers, it became a hard slog of embarrassing companies into signing the Code. By the end of 2000, however, some 140 companies had signed the Code and those who had not done so were starting to look conspicuous. Fair Wear regularly updated and distributed a list (known as a 'wallet card') of companies who had signed the Code and encouraged consumers to support retailers and labels that were on the list.

In 1999 Fair Wear supported the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union in their case before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to stop the stripping back of the Federal Clothing Award clauses which specifically referred to outworkers. In the middle of the case we felt we were struggling just to hold onto what we had, without being able to make any progress towards justice for outworkers. We were surprised to receive a very quick decision from the Commission upholding EVERYTHING in the existing "outworker clauses".

It had always been intended that the Code would be supported by an accreditation and labelling system (indeed, this is detailed within the Code), but it took some time to develop. This development was completed in mid 2000.

The label has been a significant development in the campaign to end the exploitation of outworkers. The Code of Practice Committee (responsible for overseeing the Code's implementation), sent correspondence to all Code signatories explaining the development and inviting them to information seminars on the process. The information sessions were attended by only a handful of companies. Retailers claimed they had no part to play in the process because they didn't distribute the work themselves (the 'We're just shopkeepers' argument). Fair Wear protests followed.

This week, one of the biggest retail players, Coles Myer Group, have made a commitment to support the label. This gives leadership and leverage to lobby other retailers. If the retailers want the label in their garments, manufacturers must get accredited to keep their market happy.

Finally, on International Women's Day the No Sweat Shop Label was launched in Melbourne with the slogan - Fashion Stinks when it's made in Sweatshops - Demand this Label.

A Successful Broad Based Campaign

There are two core strengths of the Fair Wear Campaign. It is a broad based coalition of groups across many sectors, and outworkers themselves have been active participants in the campaign.

In NSW church organisations have funded the campaign and are the most active participants at regular meetings. Retired nuns in their 80s and 90s have been letter writing to retailers.

School students have attended many public protests, organised activities in their schools and lobbied the companies making their school uniforms. (One school even has their own Fair Wear website.)

Community organisations have facilitated consultations and information sessions with outworkers in their communities. They have written letters to the government and to retailers and participated in protest activities.

Unions have attended protests and written letters, and are now developing a campaign around work uniforms.

Members of various political parties have lent their names and their resources to the campaign; and university student groups have educated their student bodies and participated in protests.

And all these groups have worked together, sharing the podium, the meeting table, the street and the mall to create a dynamic, active, energetic campaign.

Outworkers participation in Fair Wear has not always been visible, but it has been constantly present. Outworkers fear they will lose their if they are singled out in public, but for every protest at least one outworker tells her story to be shared with the crowd. Outworkers make themselves available to speak to the media and to groups of consumers interested in the lives behind the campaign. Significant stages in the campaign are discussed with the outworkers and their ideas included in steps taken. Outworkers participated in the briefing of the team which developed the Behind the Label strategy at the NSW Department of Industrial Relations.

Asian Women at Work, a key member of the Fair Wear Campaign has undertaken many projects and programs with outworkers. These have included Area Group and Support Group Meetings, English classes (in partnership with the TCF Union), Occupational Violence Seminars, Skill Recognition courses, Assessor's Courses and a Spokesperson Training Program.

18 outworkers attended the protest outside Parliament House this week and made the following statement about what they want.....

Statement from Outworkers - What we want

We want to be free to be outworkers. We enjoy the flexibility of working at home, and being able to care for our children.

We want our skills recognised.

We want to have time to learn English.

We want to be able to access to training programs.

We don't want to work for $3 an hour - we want our full entitlement to $12.10 an hour.

We don't want to work 16 hours a day (and sometimes overnight) to scrape together enough money for our lives.

We don't want our kids to be forced to help us in order to meet unrealistic deadlines.

We want to have time to spend with our kids.

We want to have enough strength in our arms at the end of the day to cuddle our children.

We want our employers to be forced to take out Workers Compensation cover for us, so we have some help when our bodies cave in to the heavy demands of our work.

We want retailers and fashion houses to be held accountable for wages and conditions of the workers who make their clothes.

We want a system that allows those who are exploiting us to be traced through all the links in the clothing production chain, from the top down.

Some of us want to access the retraining programs the Premier promised, to help us get out of the clothing industry and into other work.

We want so much more, but often we do not dare to dream.

To the crowd gathered we want to say -

We make for well known fashion labels.

We make work uniforms for many high profile Australian companies.

We make school uniforms for your kids.

When you wear your clothes, think of us, and the sweated labour that has gone into making them. Don't forget about us.

To the Premier we want to say -

We came to Australia for a better life. But our lives are still very hard. We are making a significant contribution to the Australian economy. Can we not ask for something back?

Implement the Behind the Label strategy and stop the exploitation we experience day to day. Prove to us that you are serious about your promise.

The Task Ahead

1. Lobbying retailers to participate actively in the Code and publicly support the No Sweat Shop Label.

Fair Wear's present focus is on demonstrating to the retailers that there is a high level of consumer demand for the No Sweat Shop label. We are encouraging consumers to send postcards to retailers to let them know that they want to see the label in stores.

Our major targets at present are the three retail groups which lead the clothing sector along with Coles Myer: .

2. Demanding state based legislation, with sanctions for those companies which profit from exploitation of outworkers, to back up the national voluntary scheme under the Homeworkers Code of Practice.

On 8th February, 1999, Premier Bob Carr stood before outworkers, the media, a contingent of high school students and other Fair Wear supporters and he made a promise. That promise was to "stop the exploitation of women and children in the textile, clothing and footwear industries in NSW."

In December 1999 a blueprint for achieving this was released by the NSW Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) called 'Behind the Label'. More than two years since the election promise was made, 100,000 outworkers and their families are sill waiting for someone to intervene in the industry that sees them exploited daily.

Fair Wear is fearful that again those powerful forces have the ear of the government, and the exploitation is being ignored.

Consider writing to the Premier and ask him why his government is dragging the chain on this issue

3. Seeking commitment from Government, retailers and manufacturers for more direct programs to assist outworkers access information, support and training.

For more info on the Campaign...

Check out the Fair Wear web site or contact the Fair Wear office via mailto:[email protected] or phone (02) 9380 9091.

For info about the accreditation and labelling system and how companies can become involved visit


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 87 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Working Woman
Cheryl Kernot on women in the workplace, Labor's male culture and where Meg went wrong.
*  Activists: Honouring Our Heroes
Anna Stewart changed the lives of Australian working families by helping women achieve balance between the competing demands of work and family.
*  Women: The Future is Female
Julia Gillard outlines the campaign to increase female representation within the Australian Labor Party.
*  Unions: Sweatshops – Beyond 2001
FairWear convenor Debbie Carstens looks over a unique partnership between churches and unions to end exploitation in the textile industry.
*  Politics: The Battle for Bennelong
Many trade unionists are working to kick John Howard out of office. But only one woman has a chance of kicking him out of his own seat. Meet Nicole Campbell.
*  International: Border Skirmishes
Alana Kerr travelled to Thailand to observe first hand the battle to organise Burmese women workers in exile.
*  History: Inside the Ladies Lounge
The McDonald sisters run Trades Hall, and have for over half a century. The building can’t speak about what has gone on in that time, but Lorna and Elaine probably know it all.
*  Satire: Taliban to Put One Nation Last
The Parliamentary fate of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party was further obscured today as key fellow right-wing extremists moved to distance themselves from the controversial Queensland politician and the group she founded and leads.
*  Review: Seven Steps to Slavation
Jenny Macklin details the seven barriers that stand between women and a better working life.

»  Sweat Stains the Great Aussie Cossie
»  Chinks Emerge in Carr’s Call Centre Stonewall
»  Telstra Called on Part-Time Work
»  ACTU Pushes for Reasonable Hours
»  Ruddock Faces Legal Action Over Working Visas
»  National Textiles Revisited: More Workers Dumped
»  New on the Menu: Home Delivery AWAs
»  Pay Equity Case Up And Running
»  Child Care OH&S 'a Time Bomb'
»  New Precedent for Workers with Print Disabilities
»  Australian Shippers Promote Slavery
»  Ambos Tried Without a Jury
»  Unions Cautious Over New Insurance Deal
»  Fears Over Future of Unfair Contracts
»  APESMA Launches Professional Women’s Network Directory
»  Women’s Gateway Launched
»  EMILY's List Raises Flag for Women Candidates
»  Web Pioneer Goes Global
»  Public Education Day on March 15
»  Activists Notebook

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Viva La Shane!
»  Still the Same
»  Sydney Council Tip of Iceberg
»  New Battle Grounds
»  Patricks Footnote
»  The Ripple Effect

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