H&M Faces New Accusations Of Child Labour And Unsafe Factory Conditions

by: Rosie Dalton | 3 years ago | News

Image: a still from H&M's new advertising campaign, which celebrates women through an intersectional feminism lens. One might ask: where's the feminism for fast fashion's female production workforce?

As clothing giant H&M prepares to open its new Auckland store on Saturday, the Swedish retailer is also 
facing accusations of child labour and unsafe factory conditions for workers. According to the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, hundreds of thousands of workers making H&M garments in its Bangladesh factories are doing so in dangerous conditions. "We're talking about severe safety hazards. For example, lack of fire doors and fire exits, lack of proper alarm systems, lack of sprinkler systems," said Workers Rights Consortium executive director Scott Nova. "There's no question that workers' lives continue to be put at risk at many H&M factories and certainly consumers in New Zealand should be aware of that," he continued.

All of this is disappointing to say the least, more than three years on from the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 workers. Back then, H&M — the biggest buyer of clothing in Bangladesh, contracting more than 200 factories — was the first company to sign up to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Despite not having clothes made at Rana Plaza specifically, the company promised to make safety improvements to all its factories throughout Bangladesh. But now, a year since the deadline for making improvements has expired, most of the factories used by H&M remain unsafe.

"H&M is not particularly worse than other major brands and retailers but it's also not particularly better,” says Nova — explaining that the retailer still hasn’t followed through on its promise to ensure all factory workers were paid a living wage. "They tend to talk a better game on labour rights and human rights than some of their competitors but when it comes to actually delivering on that rhetoric we haven't seen much evidence of genuine progress”.

Of course this big talk, little action problem is not exactly new within the ethical space — greenwashing has been going on for quite some time now. But it is still disappointing to see, given everything that’s at stake. As it is, H&M’s business model is inherently unsustainable. As the second largest clothing retailer in the world, it commands 4,100 stores globally with another 400 scheduled for opening this year. It contracts some 1,900 factories and employs 1.6 million workers to produce its clothing.

With such massive outputs, then, we really would like to believe that H&M is honouring its well-intentioned promises. So this latest information to the contrary just feels like yet another let down in the face of fast fashion. Radio NZ reports that Swedish investigative journalists Moa Kärnstrand and Tobias Andersson Åkerblom spent weeks talking to factory workers who produce clothes for H&M in Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh. They found girls as young as 14 working 12-hour days in two factories outside Rangoon, which is in breach of Myanmar law as well as international labour conventions. And their findings were published in a book earlier this month called Modeslavar, or ‘Fashion Slaves’.

"We found some girls who started working there at the age of 14 and we met many more girls who were below 18 and they worked from 7 or 8 in the morning until about 8 in the evening. In some weeks they worked from 7 in the morning until 10 in the evening." H&M has since said it has stopped using those particular factories, but Åkerblom explains that child labour is likely widespread throughout Myanmar. And the company wouldn’t say if it had checked the other factories it was working with. According to Baptist World Aid Australia — which this year gave H&M a B+ grade — the Swedish retailer is better than most fashion houses. But it just goes to show how empty many of these promises can really be. Jasmin Mawson, the author of the Baptist World Aid report said that, although H&M had much to improve on, it was one of the more transparent companies, listing all its suppliers on its website and reporting annually on any abuses found in its factories. Then again though, the company declined to be interviewed in light of these latest findings.

It did, however, fly a group of New Zealand fashion writers to its Stockholm headquarters earlier this year to explain the "utmost importance" of ensuring its products were made under good working conditions. H&M said that it had taken action on the two suppliers in Myanmar and that it would continue to do so with other factories failing to meet standards. "If a supplier doesn't live up to our standards or national legislation we - in accordance with our routines - demand that the supplier immediately establishes an action plan, which has been done also in this case,” the company explained. But then again, what exactly is H&M doing to investigate whether these factories are complying with appropriate standards in the first place? Perhaps these are the kinds of questions we should really be asking. 


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