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Bad to Worse: Study Suggests Already Awful Garment Worker Wages are Declining Still

A collapsed Bangladeshi garment factory

A collapsed Bangladeshi garment factory

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A new report shows that in the decade between 2001 and 2011 the wages of garment workers in apparel exporting countries declined. In the rare instances where wages rose, a living wage was still not met.  

The study, “Global Wage Trends for Apparel Workers, 2001-2011,” was researched by the Workers Rights Consortium and provides insight into the economic hardships employers burden garment workers with.

The slow path towards a living wage will only be attainable in select instances if unprecedented growth continues.  Real wages grew in only four of the top ten exporters studied.  Those countries are China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.  China is the best off of the four but will take another decade of similar growth to reach a living wage:

Chinese apparel workers are on course to attain a living wage by 2023, but only if the rate of wage growth seen between 2001 and 2011 is sustained.

For most countries that export to the United States the reality is quite different.  Wages are going down and a worker’s dollar has less and less buying power:

In 5 of the top 10 apparel-exporting countries to the United States—Bangladesh, Mexico, Honduras, Cambodia, and El Salvador—wages for garment workers declined in real terms between 2001 and 2011 by an average of 14.6 percent on a per country basis. This means that the gap between prevailing wages and living wages actually grew.

The largest erosion of wages occurred in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cambodia.  Over the decade studied, real wages eroded by 28.9 percent, 23.74 percent, and 19.2 percent respectively.  

In four of the six countries—the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Thailand—prevailing wages also fell in real terms by a per-country average of 12.4 percent, causing the gap between workers’ wages and a living wage to widen in these countries as well.

The apparel export industry provides jobs but cannot lift workers out of poverty.

While the expansion of garment-sector employment may have made the very poor initially significantly less poor, it has offered limited opportunities for workers in most of the major apparel-exporting countries to make further upward progress toward an income that offers them a minimally decent and secure standard of living,”

The study suggests that policy could affect change.  However, in the near term, garment workers are almost universally overworked and underpaid.


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