[Click here for more detailed table]
Whether £3 at the supermarket or £300 at an exclusive boutique, our jeans are invariably manufactured as cheaply as possible abroad. Companies subcontract their manufacturing to factories in Central America, Asia, Eastern Europe or Northern Africa, where the costs are low and the working conditions are poor. These factories may subcontract further, which makes monitoring these conditions difficult.
The term ‘sweatshop’ has been used for years to describe conditions throughout the global garment industry, where workers (usually young women) work very long hours for wages that are often insufficient to live on. Reports of intimidation, forced overtime, strip-searching and child labour are also rife.
In the US in January 1999, campaign groups and trade unions filed a federal lawsuit against 18 companies operating in the Pacific island of Saipan, which is part of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of 35,000 Saipan garment workers, alleged that the companies had formed a ‘racketeering conspiracy’ to use indentured labour to produce clothing on the island, that contractors, manufacturers and retailers ‘had engaged in and benefited from forced labour’, and that ‘workers were forced into conditions constituting peonage and involuntary servitude, in violation of human rights laws’.
Since then, companies including Gap, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan have settled claims and have agreed to the independent monitoring of Saipan contractors in future. Levi Strauss was the only company that refused to settle the claim. Jeans found on sale in the UK are increasingly likely to have been manufactured in Central and Eastern Europe or in North Africa. Labour Behind the Label (www.labourbehindthelabel.org) reported that Gap factory workers in Russia had been paid just 11 cents per hour and were kept in ‘slavelike’ conditions.
In Bulgaria, a factory which manufactured clothing for Levi Strauss stores in the UK was reported to be strip-searching female workers at the end of their shifts on a regular basis, ostensibly to check they had not stolen anything. One worker, interviewed by The Sunday Times, reported that she had been sacked after refusing to be strip-searched. In addition the factory allegedly failed to pay sufficient wages for workers to feed and house a family properly.
Codes of ethical conduct
Documents are sometimes produced by clothing companies which set down minimum standards for working conditions. The companies on the table have been approved if, among the usual stipulations about wages and working hours, they formally recognise the right to collective bargaining (the right to form a union) and they have some kind of monitoring system in place to ensure the code is not ignored. Companies who are approved under the Ethical Trading Schemes heading have signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) or the Fair Labor Association (FLA), and have therefore opened their factory doors to independent scrutiny (even if this scrutiny extends to very few factories).
There are some signs that the clothing industry is beginning to emerge from its moral torpor. Companies with the worst human rights records, such as Gap and Nike, have recently been praised for their attempts to improve working conditions in their supply chain. Gap’s 2005 CSR report is admirably honest about the labour abuses that go on in the company’s overseas factories, and Levi Strauss has been applauded for working with trade unions and supporting sacked workers at a factory in Mexico.
The Fairtrade Foundation launched certified cotton in the UK in late 2005. Demand for fair trade cotton products has been high, so it is only a matter of time before fair trade jeans become available. Check the Ethical Clothing Directory for details of organic alternatives.
Ethical Comparison – Jeans Rankings Detailed Table
Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.
We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Calvin Klein, Easy, Falmer, Amazing Jeans, Lee Cooper. Diesel, DKNY, Levi, Wrangler, Lee
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