The time has come for H&M’s most immediate claim to come to fruition. In 2013 H&M promised that by 2018 all of their workers would be provided a living wage. This then begs the question, what exactly are H&M admittedly paying their workers, if not enough to live on? And therein lay the important distinction between minimum wage (which not all brands extend the courtesy of providing) and living wage.
For instance, currently the minimum wage for workers in Bangladesh (one of the main supplier sites for H&M) is slightly below the 87 USD a month they are currently being paid by the mass corporation. So while H&M are within their legal requirements, the world poverty line sits at 88 USD a month, which is both puzzling and extremely disheartening. This means that when the term “living wage” becomes thrown about, we are discussing more than just a legality. A living wage includes access to healthy foods, education, a home, and transportation for themselves and all family members as well as savings for unforeseen events.
What makes achieving this goal of a living wage difficult, or rather makes it so easy for companies to avoid, is governmental disinterest in raising the minimum wage. There is fear that in doing so, brands will be encouraged to seek out cheaper manufacturing alternatives, and the country’s economy will suffer. There is, however, a way out of this debacle. In brands like H&M supporting manufacturers that offer a living wage, and making a promise to continue business with them after the rise in wages (which would still be far less than domestic manufacturing) this gives weight to a new status quo.
Due to varied cost of living from country to country, a “living wage” is very case specific, but to give an example of how underpaid some factory workers are, we can turn to Europe. While often an association with European manufacturing spurs thoughts of luxury and economic flourish, Europe is in fact home to many sweatshops. Some workers are earning no more than 89 EUR, when their living wage would have to be around 438 EUR a month. It is not uncommon for factories around the world to be paying workers a fifth of what they would require to sustain a healthy life.
The matter of fair wages for workers is a cocktail of fear being made by brands and governments surrounding a loss of profit. But the reality of the situation is that there is a way around this that would leave no parties particularly injured, and would improve millions of lives in the process. H&M could surrender 1.9% of its profit from last year to pay all of its Cambodian workers a fair living wage, and potentially pave the way for wage conscious government policies. The question is, will they?