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Much work has been done in the past to ease the plight of clothing outworkers in New South Wales. It's time to step up the pressure, as sweatshops and clothing contract work are thriving stronger than ever, writes Ian West.
May is a recent migrant and Australian citizen who works in a sweatshop from 6.30am until 11pm, 6 or 7 days a week. She receives a pay cheque at $7 per hour (not a piecework rate) from which she has to pay her own tax. She does not get any leave or overtime.
May's story is only too familiar to the estimated 100,000 clothing outworkers in New South Wales. The Award rate is $13.40 per hour but is rarely paid.
In fact, many workers get on average $5 per hour from which they have to pay tax, for their sewing equipment and to pick up an deliver orders in addition to the health costs associated with prolonged working conditions, RSI, failing eyesight and respiratory conditions. An estimated 73% of outworkers have one or more chronic injuries.
This disgraceful situation continues despite some spirited efforts over the years from unions, activist bodies and governments. In fact it is set to get worse, as the national tariff in the clothing industry is set to drop from 25% to 17.5% on January 1, 2005.
We all know that means wages and conditions will be forced down in an attempt to compete with even cheaper imports, as has been the case since tariff cuts first started to kill Australian clothing manufacturers.
When you're dealing with an industry based largely on illegal exploitation of the most powerless, effective legislative coverage is difficult to achieve.
In any case, the ability of even the strongest laws to be policed in the clothing industry is severely restricted. It's easy enough to write codes of practice for the industry but implementing and policing them is the real challenge.
It's an insult to be told by John Howard and his cronies that any worker would be better off under an Australian Workplace Agreement (AWA), let alone these outworkers. This is the sort of crap we can expect if AWAs are allowed to spread.
Howard's worldview also gives us such philosophies as 'might is right', 'dog eat dog' and an individualistic 'survival of the fittest'.
These philosophies explain the fact that migrant mothers work more than 15 hours a day, 7 days a week to feed and clothe their children, many of whom help with the work in what is effectively child labour, all for slave wages.
It's a sorry tale that we've been reading for too long and I know personally, we forget too easily.
Thanks to Barry Tubner and Igor Nossar of the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFUA), two champions of this issue for many years, State Labor MPs were reminded of this situation at the most recent Labor Council Briefing last month.
A fundamental point made in the briefing was the importance of putting in place the mandatory Code of Practice outlined in the NSW Industrial Relations (Ethical Clothing Trades) Act 2001.
The legislation has been in place almost 3 years, but the Code, which carries penalties of up to $11,000 for non-compliance, is still yet to be approved by the NSW Government.
This is part of the push to ensure that if the industry is going to be covered by various codes which are difficult to police, then ethical retailers must not be undercut and penalised for operating legally.
Back in 2002, the NSW Government launched the 'Behind the Label' strategy as part of its progressive reforms of the industry. 'Behind the Label' brokered an agreement between the Australian Retailers Association, the TCFUA and the Government to ensure that major retailers were not using local suppliers who use exploitative work practices.
These were positive steps, but they have not since been followed up.
The situation with outworkers in Australia is inexcusable on a human rights and industrial rights basis. As a Labor State government, we must continue to struggle to improve the lives of people like outworkers, otherwise we'll be as morally bankrupt as the sweatshop owners.
Ongoing education of NSW Labor MPs by the Labor Council over the last year has demonstrated the possibilities of achieving better and more just outcomes from a Labor Government.
At the last briefing, Annie Owens, State Secretary of the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, reported on the Government cleaning dispute. This dispute has since been successfully resolved by the LHMU with some key support from Labor Caucus members.
PS. Have you seen Don Watson's 2003 book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language? I have only just read it and found it very interesting and instructive on how language is used and abused to hide and twist the truth.
***Thanks to Asian Women at Work and FairWear for providing case studies and figures.
For more information, see the following links
No Sweat Shop label http://www.nosweatshoplabel.com/
TCFUA homeworkers code of practice http://www.tcfua.org.au/homeworkers_code.htm
Behind the Label (NSW Government initiative) http://www.industrialrelations.nsw.gov.au/behindthelabel/
And for my spin on What's On in NSW Parliament, go to Ian West's Online Office at http://www.ianwestmlc.com.au/new.html
I am interested to hear feedback and ideas--you can contact Antony Dale or myself at Parliament House on (02) 9230 2052 or email me at [email protected]
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