Anyone believing that human rights abuses are endemic in offshore production should compare the levels of protection afforded to factory workers in the developing world supplying major Western brands with the experience of garment workers in the West. It's not as clear-cut as it seems, writes Mike Flanagan.

If you're a developing country, does having a garment export industry improve worker rights?

Yes, if you're exporting to Europe, North America or Australasia, according to U Myint Soe, the chairman of Burma's Myanmar Garment Association (MGA). If he's right, that's an extraordinary irony compared with the experience of many garment workers in the West.

"US garment firms are very concerned with labour rights. Normally, US garment companies check the working environment of factories and other labour suppliers before they give the green light for trade," Myint Soe told a recent press conference.

"After US sanctions began...we tried to work closely with Japan, which is very strict on the quality of items from Burma. They did not accept even one wrong button. But they are not concerned with labour rights," he added.

Well, up to a point. Not every garment imported into the US comes from a factory that has been meticulously inspected before the first stitch was sewn. But any factory up for approval by Gap or Nike is certainly going to face some very tough questions about how it treats its workers.

And this probably gives workers in developing world factories supplying major Western brands greater levels of protection than ever before.

The system has its flaws, and few union activists will ever accept wages are anywhere near adequate. But workers manufacturing for H&M or Victoria's Secret have two powerful weapons to hand:

  • The strength of properly marketed brands, and
  • The scepticism (some might call it cynicism) many consumers and journalists in the West have about the marketing motivations of those brands.

Interestingly, workers' ability to manipulate these weapons comes from an apparently minor detail of garment manufacture that many buyers fail to understand, and that drives factories to constant frustration.

It's all in a name
When you start the sewing process, almost the first step is to sew in the labels identifying the brand, the care instructions, the fabric content and usually the country of origin. Disorganised clients often assume this stage can be done late in the process, and fail to plan so that the labels arrive on time.

Since it's a great deal more time consuming to sew labels into a finished garment, late arriving labels are in our experience the single most common cause of production delays. But that's the subject of an altogether different Rant.

Because most garments made for a major brand carry their identification throughout their manufacture, almost the first thing any dissatisfied worker tells a local activist or reporter is the name of the ultimate client.

When the story eventually breaks, it's always Adidas or M&S identified in the headline: no-one in the West cares what factory the alleged infringement happened in, and few really care which country.

It's another opportunity for Western media to bash up a big bad brand - and the standard knee-jerk reaction of most readers and journalists is to assume the brand's guilty.

This simply doesn't happen with the rice grown in the fields that the workers left behind when they headed for the factories in the big cities - or with the coal, logs or metal ore their relatives extract, often under appalling and life-threatening conditions.

Infringements of human rights on an assembly line thousands of miles away can be made relevant to the garments' wearers in a way that's impossible with far worse brutalities elsewhere in the country.

Now the brands - generally - make a lot of money from their consumer reputation, and I'm not suggesting anyone weep in sympathy at their investments aimed at ensuring scandals about working conditions don't undermine that reputation.

But every union activist knows it's much easier to secure decent wages and conditions in a factory working for Levi's or Nike than in one making unlabelled goods to be sold in a Russian market. And, if he thinks about it, it's all those capitalist adverts he despises that lie behind the extra clout he has over a vast multinational than over a street trader in Novosibirsk.

Major garment retailers and brands spend far too much time and money cultivating the relationship with their customers to see it all frittered away by stories about a few bully boys mismanaging an assembly line in Dhaka - even if those stories have been blown up out of all proportion en route to the Western newspaper.

Contrast with the situation in the West
Oddly, though, making Western garment brands in a developing country doesn't just contrast with making for other customers in a developing country. It seems to contrast with making garments in the West.

The California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) recently announced it has carried out about 1,500 investigations in South California's garment industry in the five years since 2007. In 93% of those investigations, violations were uncovered.

It now plans, together with the US Federal Department of Labor, to increase the number of such investigations over the next five years - and there are frequent similar cases reported in New York. Not to mention in London or in Prato, Italy.

The once-standard defence used against abuse by America's garment workers against abuse were strong industry unions, ensuring the first label sewn in was the union label.

At one time, "look for the union label" was among the best known slogans in America's garment industry. Now a recent columnist ironically discovered a clothes store boasting that 80% of its products were made in the US - but fewer than 5% in a factory with a union.

There are lots of reasons unions have become rare in Western garment plants, and their disappearance is due to a lot more than discouragement by factory owners. But it is ironic that the standard H&M or Gap factory inspection questionnaire spends some time on workers' access to union representation if they want it - while in the West, unions are almost a thing of the past.

The biggest Western irony of all, though, is what seems to be happening with the biggest of all Western "buy local" programmes.

US law requires 51% of apparel bought by Federal agencies to be made in the US. But, as the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) woefully points out, a disturbing proportion of the US jobs created in the US by that law are in US prisons.

No doubt many use prison labour from awareness of how important it is to rehabilitate prisoners - but the fact that inmates' wages average $0.27 an hour can't be deterring government buyers much either.

Spokespeople for prison labour rightly point out that there are special costs in employing prisoners over and above those 27 cents. Still, though, many "buy American" programmes depend on workers in the US receiving an amount identical to the minimum wage in Bangladesh.

There is no simple moral to this irony. But Westerners believing offshore production depends on human rights abuses might compare the views of Burma's Myint Soe with the experience of today's Western garment workers.