A textile, apparel and footwear union is accusing a number of leading fashion labels of failing to meet minimum legal standards for workers in the clothing industry.

The Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) has begun court proceedings today (5 June) against 23 brands such as Rebekah Hardwick, Very Very and Verducci, claiming they have breached laws preventing the exploitation of outworkers.

In its filing the TCFUA alleges the firms "breached important outwork and related provisions" of either the former Clothing Trades Award 1999 and/or the Textile, Clothing, Footwear and Associated Industries Award 2010.

"TCF outworkers, almost uniformly migrant women, labour at home at the end of long and complex supply chains," said Michele O'Neil, TCFUA national secretary. "Outworkers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation given the hidden nature of their work and their isolation. Despite their high level of skill, most are forced to work long hours for very low wages, some for as little as US$5-6 an hour."

She adds that without supply chain transparency, it is "impossible to identify sweatshops" and where outworkers are, how much workers are being paid and whether other labour standards are being complied with.

O'Neil has called on the fashion industry to "reject a race to the bottom based on the exploitation of outworkers and the use of sweatshops".

"There are companies doing the right thing and who have embraced ethical manufacturing in Australia. That's the future for the industry - beautiful clothes made ethically in Australia. Our union will not let companies who persist in breaching minimum award obligations get away with it."