Around 8 blank paper tages in a row

Behind the Tag

Clothing labels can be a pain in the neck. Yet, the itching and irritation of a tiny fabric tag frequently distracts from its significance in supply chain transparency. Decades, even centuries, of effort by unions saw information such as country production, material composition, clothing care symbols, and – for some countries – registered identification numbers, become a legal requirement.

The union activism of garment factory workers around the world has not ceded with the implementation of labels and tags. Abuse of working rights including forced overtime, unrealistic quotas, verbal abuse, physical violence, unsafe working conditions, no pay, sexual assault and harassment, are still a daily occurrence for many.

In most garment producing countries, formal legal channels of dispute resolution to seek remediation and to stop violations include lodging a complaint to the labour ministry, bringing an action to court, and arbitration. Despite the assortment of available, formal redress paths, these options present numerous obstacles and are often overshadowed by the blurring of factory and government interests; even the rule of law.

Enter the clothing label. Given the way this globalised economy is currently fashioned, apparel brands wield considerable power and influence in garment-producing countries. Perhaps more importantly, they also have the finances to address violations in factories. Apparel brands are a nexus between supply and demand within the fast-fashion paradigm, and if they are leveraged, they can be an effective means for remediation of labour rights.

Cambodia is a major player in the highly competitive global garment industry. Its economy has long been reliant on the largely export-oriented garment sector, which employs 847,419 workers, approximately 90 per cent of whom are women. Of the total $10.79 billion in factory revenue generated last year, more than $7 billion was from Cambodia.

Garment factory union leaders from the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions regularly workshop strategies on brand engagement through clothing labels – to help address issues still facing garment factory workers. They recently completed exercises on clothing label analyses and writing complaints to brands. These two steps are incremental – once the brand is identified, a complaint can then be brought to them.

Clothing label analysis

Clothing label analysis requires workers to collect different labels that appear in their factory. They keep a log of the percentage of garments produced at their factory allowing them to identify the brand, its volume and export destination. This record keeping enables workers to self-monitor which brands are using their factory and acts as supporting evidence to demonstrate to the brand that their factory is the one producing their apparel.

Writing complaints to brands

Workers write up accounts detailing when and where a violation has occurred.  They also list which Cambodian labour laws are breached, the repercussions and explain what the brand should do. This process demonstrates that workers are aware of their rights and are empowered to call for action.

A recent example of the importance of clothing labels is the case of Kingsland Garment Factory: an H&M and Walmart supplier. The factory closed down without notice and the employer took off overseas despite owing workers about $230,000 in unpaid wages, severance and other allowances under Cambodian Labour Law. Through tracing clothing labels from its factory, workers identified and lobbied both Walmart and H&M. In response, one Walmart warehouse in Oregon even organised a solidarity strike with the Cambodian workers. Through their action, the workers received the amount owed from Walmart and H&M.

However, more information is needed on clothing labels to ensure the supply chain of garments can be traced. For example, unlike the USA, Australia does not have Registered Numbers (RNs). These five figures are a basic attempt to facilitate and increase supply chain transparency. Australia should similarly require that RNs, factory names and addresses are added to clothing tags for products going to the country.

Bent Gehrt, the Southeast Asia Field Director for the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), explained that in addition to adding more information to the clothing tags, transparency needs to go further. One way to do this is to facilitate public disclosure of the brands and retailers’ supply chains. Gehrt wrote:

‘All of our member universities have a contractual right to receive from the brands that use their names and logos a quarterly list of production facilities complete with name, address and contact information. This information is then compiled and published by the WRC in a searchable website, that both students and garment workers are able to access.’

18 years ago, the WRC was the first entity to make supply chain information publicly available, but it is increasingly becoming the norm with around 70 brands already disclosing the factories they use.

Clothing label analyses at the ANU

Clothing label analysis is also happening at the consumer side of the supply chain, including here at ANU through the SWEATS #TagTheTag campaign. The campaign aims to gather data on the apparel brands and the country of production of ANU merchandise. It also aims to raise awareness about the sources of our apparel and to understand the supply chains that exist in the production process. Through this exercise, students found that most of ANU merchandise was produced in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China and Honduras.

To push for greater supply chain transparency, and to encourage consumers to engage with brands and find out #whomademyclothes, SWEATS is re-launching #TagTheTag. Members of the ANU community are encouraged to take pictures of apparel tags inside t-shirts, hoodies, jackets, etc. from any ANU branches, such as ANUSA, PARSA, Residences, ANU Shop, and ANU Sport. You may post them directly on the event page, or email them to sweats.club.anu@gmail.com.

Clothing labels are here to stay. Adding a few extra numbers and the name and address of the origin factory onto them will not make them any more irritating. What it will do is help us all see where our clothes are made, and for garment factory workers producing the apparel. These details can be a significant asset for remedying abuses through brand engagement.