Image courtesy of Fair Wear Foundation

Let’s talk about workers’ rights

How can garment companies work effectively on better conditions for the workers who sew their clothes? Since 2008, Filippa K works with the international organisation Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) on improving working conditions in garment factories. FWF’s Niki Janssen and Filippa K’s Doreen Chiang-Söderström talk about what being a member of FWF implies.

The first step in improving workers’ rights is to be aware of the labour conditions in the factories where brands produce their clothes. How does Fair Wear Foundation expect their members to do that?

Niki:  FWF members perform professional audits at their suppliers to assess the working conditions: what are the wages, are employees working regular hours, are there enough fire exits? Our brands are also required to visit their suppliers on a regular basis. During that visit they can assess the most immediate risks.

Doreen: When visiting a new supplier we bring a FWF Supplier Assessment checklist and also check if the factory already have been audited, by whom and what the findings were. Continuously working with the same factories we visit them on a regular basis and if they are based in a high risk country we also do audits every third year. It is important, both for us and the factory, to follow up on the findings from the audits by committing to a corrective action plan and agree on a time frame for the different improvements together.

Another important component of FWF membership is to respond adequately to problems on the factory floor. What to do when problems are found?

Niki: We don’t want our members to leave the factory. It might be good PR, but you lose your leverage. It does nothing to improve the situation of the workers. Instead, you make it their problem. Members should make clear that they want to continue the business relationship and work together with factory management on solving the problems.

Doreen: Our first choice is always to try to improve the situation. Last year one of our suppliers, Aussco, had problems with excessive over-time. To have a better leverage when addressing this issue we collaborated with Odd Molly, also a customer of theirs, and together we set up a corrective action plan and worked with the follow up. Aussco managed to decrease the over-time as a result. Most important is to work pro-actively though to create awareness, from management to worker level. We do that by providing Workers Educational program together with FWF, by inviting suppliers to seminars that FWF arrange but also through a new interactive digital tool called QuizRR.

« We don’t want our members to leave the factory. It might be good PR, but you lose your leverage »

FWF member brands also need to work on preventing human rights violations from happening. How can brands work on limiting the risks of labour violations?

Niki: By adapting the way they do business. Brands’ purchasing practices directly affect every day work in the factory.  When a celebrity is spotted in an all pink ensemble, some designers might like to change the fabric color last minute but still want the orders to be delivered at the same time. Unrealistic deadlines are a common problem in the industry. They can be an important cause of excessive overtime in a factory. We ask our brands to come up with a realistic production planning to make sure that suppliers have sufficient time to prepare the orders.
Filippa K mainly buys from factories in Portugal and China. We expect them to know about the specific risks in these countries so they can work effectively towards limiting them.

Doreen: Building long-term professional relationships is a key factor, about 2/3 of our suppliers have been with us for more than five years. But it is also about doing the production planning together with our suppliers to get optimized lead time for both parts. Feedback from our suppliers is that we have realistic and workable lead times and that we have little unexpected or unreasonable changes. If changes are caused by us, we always bare the cost of late deliveries.

Transparency is an important part of FWF membership. How can consumers check how well Filippa K is doing and where they need to improve?

Niki: By reading their Brand Performance Check on www.fairwear.org.  Filippa K lets us publicly report on their efforts to improve conditions at their suppliers. We visit them every year and interview different staff about their purchasing practices and how they solved issues that came to light during audits. It’s quite an intense day, because they actually need to prove what they’ve done in the past year. Filippa K ended up in the Good category!

Doreen: The Brand performance check is transparent and accessible for everyone to read, on FWF’s website as well as ours. We are transparent about who is manufacturing our clothes, on each garment on our website you can read about the production facility, the address, how many workers, for how long we have been working together etc.

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