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New research reveals how our clothes are Made in Poverty

The systemic failure of big Australasian clothing brands to bring an end to the payment of poverty wages is denying the workers who make our clothes even the basics of a decent life, new research released by Oxfam today has revealed.

The report, Made in Poverty, published by Oxfam Australia, is the first in-depth investigation of its kind into the lives of workers making the clothes that end up on the shelves of household-name New Zealand brands. It has exposed the harsh and heart-breaking reality of a system of entrenched exploitation that is trapping millions in poverty.

Oxfam Australia chief executive Dr Helen Szoke said the research involved interviews with hundreds of workers in factories in Bangladesh and Vietnam that supply clothes to brands such as Just Jeans, Kmart, Country Road and Cotton On – and was an indictment on the industry’s continued acceptance of poverty wages globally.

She said some of the many disturbing findings of the research in Bangladesh were that 100 per cent of workers interviewed were not paid a living wage, nine out of ten could not afford enough food for themselves and their families until their next monthly pay and seven out of 10 could not pay for medical treatment when they were sick or injured. In Vietnam, 99 per cent were not paid a living wage and seven out of 10 women interviewed felt their pay was not enough to meet their needs.

The investigation has uncovered the widespread payment of poverty wages and the impact this is having on the lives of the workers, mainly women, making the clothes New Zealanders love to wear.

“Women who are unable to get treatment when they fall sick, workers who cannot afford to send their children to school, families that cannot make their pay stretch to put enough food on the table, people sleeping on floors in overcrowded houses, spiralling debts, mothers separated from their children – these are just some of the common realities of the failure of big brands to ensure the payment of living wages,” Dr Szoke said.

A living wage means enough money is earned in a standard week to cover basic essentials including food, housing, healthcare, clothing, transport, education and some money for unexpected events.

Dr Szoke said in addition to the overwhelming statistics revealing that workers were paid pittance wages no matter how long or hard they work, the research included harrowing personal stories.

“Tania, a 21-year-old woman who earns at most $169 a month in a factory supplying clothes to brands including Kmart, is among the one in three women interviewed in Bangladesh who are forced to live separately from their children because of a lack of money and carers,” she said. “Tania told Oxfam that on her one day off a week, she often sat in her tiny room and cried in desperation as she missed her daughter – who is now aged four and she sees just twice a year.

“Chameli, who lives in a nine square metre room with her husband and three daughters, earns an average of just 51 cents an hour in a factory that supplies to [Australian brand] Big W. Chameli’s daughters, aged 5, 12 and 14, do not attend school because of a lack of money, and the family recently made the tough decision to allow their eldest to work in a clothing factory – and so the cycle of poverty is forced from one generation to the next.”

The new research builds on a previous Oxfam report, What She Makes, which found that paying living wages would add just one per cent on average to the retail price of a piece of clothing – a cost than can be absorbed by brands.

Oxfam New Zealand’s executive director Rachael Le Mesurier said: “The New Zealand fashion industry is worth billions of dollars every year – brands are responsible for making credible commitments to pay living wages to the workers making their clothes, and it’s important that there are clear timelines for achieving this. Women like Tania and Chameli have a right to be given the chance to break the cycle of poverty.”

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