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‘Woke’ consumers push fashion industry to care about workers

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Workers at a garment factory in Semarang, Central Java, exercise during a break on Thursday. Ardila Syakriah/jakarta post

‘Woke’ consumers push fashion industry to care about workers

Twenty-three-year-old Atria Zahrina used to buy specific fashion brands. For three years, at least once in three months, she would buy items of her favorite brands.

Old habits die hard, but upon learning about mistreatment of some workers at a factory producing clothing for the brands in developing countries last year, she lost interest.

Atria said she used to fill her wardrobe with the brands’ clothes, as the products made her feel “cool and up-to-date” without having to spend much money.

It all changed, however, when she stumbled upon news of Indonesian garment workers staging protests against one of her brands after reportedly not receiving their promised pay.

The story intrigued her, and a quick internet search led her to information about an accident in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka – the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which housed several garment factories, killed 1,130 factory workers in 2013.

“That truly opened my eyes . . . I felt extremely sad, even more so after realising that I may have contributed to [workers’ mistreatment] as a consumer,” Atria told the Jakarta Post.

The textile and garment industry remains a championed sector in Indonesia despite its sluggish growth due to intensifying global competition. The industry remained export-oriented and labour-intensive, employing more than three million workers, Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto said earlier this year.

On the other hand, there have been numerous reports of violations of the rights of garment factory workers across the world, including in Indonesia, as rapid cycles of fashion trends and high demand could force companies to pay little attention to workers’ welfare.

The questionable production practices made Atria reluctant to purchase products of the brand.

“As a consumer, the least I can do is take into account ethical production of the brands. At the very least, brands and factories must follow the regulations in Indonesia, especially on working hours, minimum wage and workplace safety,” Atria said.

Graphic designer Kristianti Yosephine shares that sentiment. The 23-year-old said she had made some fashion brands her option of last resort upon learning about child labour and poor working conditions at some factories supplying items for the brands.

“Consumers need to be educated about workers’ rights to create social pressure on these brands to adopt ethical fashion production . . . For now, there is still not enough pressure,” she said.

A 2018 report by American consulting firm McKinsey & Company in partnership with the Business of Fashion (BoF) entitled The State of Fashion 2019: A Year of Awakening highlights a shift to more socially conscious consumers, or in their words “woke” – a phrase popularised on social media that means being alert to injustice in society.

The report notes that many of those in the Generation Z, or people born after 1996, who the report estimates will account for 40 per cent of global consumers by 2020, believe that companies have a responsibility to address social issues.

Citing a 2016 McKinsey report, the 2018 report also notes that some 42 per cent of millennials say they want to know what goes into products and how they are produced before purchasing, compared with 37 per cent of Gen Z.

With such critical consumers, the report highlights the need for “radical transparency” by fashion players on a number of issues, including workers’ welfare and treatment.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) country director for Indonesia and Timor-Leste Michiko Miyamoto said such a trend among consumers had also become the concern of global brands.

“Consumers’ awareness is very high, much higher these days. They want to know where the products are made. Are they made in a responsible manner [in terms of] workers’ rights and many other aspects?” she said.

Michiko said some brands, as a result, assessed garment factories for compliance with these issues in selecting suppliers.

The ILO, she said, had partnered with 36 global brands through its flagship programme Better Work Indonesia (BWI), created in 2011 alongside the World Bank’s private arm International Finance Corporation (WB-IFC), to ensure and improve suppliers’ compliance.

The assessment was based on factory owners’ compliance with regulations in the country and ILO conventions covering workers’ rights.

The programme has reached 216 factories and almost 400,000 workers, 80 per cent of them women, in Jakarta, West Java and Central Java so far.

One of the manufacturers was exporter PT Ungaran Sari Garment (USG), which operates three factories in Semarang, Central Java, and employs around 14,000 workers, 95 per cent of them women.

PT USG senior manager for human resources and compliance Nur “Arif” Arifin said the company acknowledged demand from consumers and brands, deeming its participation in the programme since 2013 part of its investment to create sustainable business practices and improve workers’ productivity.

He said the company’s export quantity had increased by 28 per cent from 2014 to 2018 with a 20.8 per cent increase in transactional value over the same period.

“We are trying to side with women, given that they’re the majority of the workers in the garment industry. When we improve their health, their families’ health will also improve, then their absence rate will decrease, resulting in increased production and good business growth,” Arif said.

Among the aspects promoted by the BWI and adopted by PT USG was the provision of lactation rooms and flexibility for workers to pump breast milk.

Pangestuti Ayuningtyas, 27, a worker at the firm’s factory in Congol, Central Java, said the lactation room, complete with refrigerators to store the milk, was very helpful for a new mother like her.

“I’m worried that my baby will run out of milk or get sick. Breastfeeding can boost children’s immune system, and I could also save money instead of [spending it on] formula milk,” she told the Post.

The Jakarta Post

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