What Is a Living Wage and Why Isn’t the Fashion Industry Paying It to Garment Workers?

Last Updated on August 29, 2023

The average garment factory worker is pressured to work at least 10-12 hours a day — and yet, they still can’t afford to support themselves and their families. An estimated 98% of garment workers, of which 75% are young women, don’t earn a living wage.

Clean Clothes Campaign’s Tailored Wages 2019 Report found that “no major clothing brand is able to show that workers making their clothing in Asia, Africa, Central America or Eastern Europe are paid enough to escape the poverty trap.”

Unfair wages are an old legacy of the fashion industry and one we need to work to fix.

How is a Living Wage Calculated? 

Garment workers should be able to maintain a “decent standard of living for [themselves] and their family” by working a maximum of 48 hours a week, according to Oxfam. There are several factors to consider when establishing a living wage, and it varies by country. ABLE, an ethical brand leading a transparency campaign called the #LowestWageChallenge, determines a living wage “based on local prices in each country for housing and utilities, transportation, food and water, healthcare, childcare, education, and savings.” 

Living wage vs. minimum wage: A living wage should not be conflated with minimum wage. Minimum wage in many countries is not enough for someone to support themselves and their families. It is simply the minimum amount of money a person can legally be paid. 

Clean Clothes Campaign calculated that wages for garment production are rarely more than 3% of the final retail price of a garment. A report from Oxfam found that if garment workers were paid a living wage, it would only cost brands 1% more to produce clothing items. At the end of the day, fashion brands are often just keeping most of the profit on garments for themselves. 

“It would cost $2.2 billion a year to increase the wages of all 2.5 million Vietnamese garment workers from the average wage to a living wage. This is the equivalent of a third of the amount paid out to shareholders by the top five companies in the garment sector,” says another Oxfam report.

What Can Fashion Companies Do to Make Sure Workers Are Paid a Living Wage?

Brands avoid the responsibility of paying a living wage in several ways, such as blaming the factories, saying it’s too expensive, or that they’re paying the legal minimum wage. Instead of pointing fingers, brands need to own up to their mistakes, recognize how they can fix them, and implement solutions like changing how prices are split or how they pay factories. 

Some brands are taking steps to make positive change. For instance, Nisolo and ABLE partnered in 2020 to create the #LowestWageChallenge “because you deserve to know whether or not the people who made the clothes on your body have been paid enough to meet their basic needs and live a life of dignity.” By asking other brands to share the lowest wage they pay and having it third party verified, they are trying to create change in the fashion industry and rectify decades of unfair wages.

Clean Clothes Campaign says they’re working to get brands to change how they pay suppliers so that a living wage can be paid to garment makers. “Our work revolves around asking companies to use living-wage benchmarks when calculating order prices. By putting a figure on the living wage, the labour cost can be calculated and embedded into pricing breakdowns, and companies can use this to be sure that suppliers are receiving enough to pay a living wage,” they say on their website.

This article from The Guardian asked experts from business, trade unions and campaign groups what would need to change in order for garment workers to get fair pay. These experts pointed out various solutions, including  brands taking on the responsibility of making sure each worker is paid a living wage by paying their suppliers fairly, and getting local governments involved so that it is against the law to pay workers any less than a living wage. 

What Can I Do To Support Garment Workers?

There are many ways to help garment workers receive living wages. You could…

Do you have any more suggestions on how people can support garment workers? Comment below!

Follow Carmen Williams:
Carmen lives with her cat, Peeves in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a freelance journalist and copywriter with over 10 years' experience in all things digital. She’s written on various subjects from finance, to sustainability, to relationships for many brands, including Aurora Sustainability, TotalBeauty and News24.