I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Beth Macpherson, Compliance Officer for the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, Fashion Stylist, and I'm proud to say also happens to be my Mum.
Beth works closely with Ethical Clothing Australia, and has some very interesting insights into the Fashion Industry that I wanted to share with my readers. When we hear the term 'Sweat Shop', we are unlikely to associate that with Australia. We assume this kind of thing only happens offshore in less developed countries, but sadly, Sweat Shops are evident right here in our 'lucky country' as they are in many other countries around the world.
Beth, can you please explain your role at TCFU and what being a compliance officer involves:
My day to day task is following supply chains and ensuring they meet Australian legal requirements. This includes both In-house workers (those working within a workplace) and Out-workers (those working in their own home). My job is to ensure they are working in a safe environment, with adequate facilities, free from harassment and intimation, are receiving the correct entitlements and rate of pay, and have reasonable working hours.
If any of these standards are not met, we attempt to work with the head of the supply chain to rectify the issues, if this is unable to be achieved, then they face prosecution.
What has been your experience with compliance in your time within this role?
Unfortunately non-compliance is high among manufacturing in Australia, no different to what happens offshore.
People are of the wrong assumption, that Sweat Shops, exploitation, and extreme unsafe working conditions exists only offshore, in places like China, Bangladesh, Cambodia and India. In actual fact it happens in the suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland ... and I have personally witnessed it. It is what I encounter on a daily basis. These Sweat Shops can be hiding behind a painted window in a shop front, it could be in a back yard or in a factory.
The term 'Sweat Shop', can you explain what that means and what you would consider to be one?
Generally a really dangerous work environment, in all facets. Poor lighting, poor Ventilation, lots of rubbish and clutter, very hot in summer, very cold in winter, workers not being paid adequately, unhygienic bathrooms and kitchens, no space to sit and have breaks and eat lunch, excessive working hours ... and the list goes on.
Can you tell us, to your knowledge, why is it that workers stay in these conditions?
There are a number of reasons why workers don't speak up and continue to stay working in these conditions, and one is that English is not their first language, and they are unaware of their entitlements . They are grateful for the work regardless of how poorly they are being treated.
Another reason is fear, fear of losing their job, fear of being outcast from this community in which their livelihood depends on and fear of not being able to provide for their families. Employers play on this fear and use it to further intimate and manipulate workers.
During your time in this role, you would have seen a lot of big Australian Brands such as Country Road and Gorman move their manufacturing offshore, can you share some insight into why this is?
There are two major reasons why Brands explain they have chosen to go offshore, one is that it helps them stay competitive in regard to cost of manufacturing .The other is that some processes are now no longer available here in Australia. This in itself is a sad reality, as more manufacturing moved offshore the less demand there was for certain processes here in Australia, causing many Australian business to close their doors. There was a big shift in Australian Brands moving offshore for manufacturing in the 1970's, 80's and 90's, I'm pleased to say that we are starting to see a big shift back. With many new Australian Brands choosing to keep their Supply Chain short and right here in Australia.
Why do you think there is this shift back to Australian manufacturing?
Consumers are demanding it, they want to know where their clothing is coming from and how it is being made. It's understood there are risks associated with construction jobs, police, ambulance and other emergency services roles, but there should be zero risk of dying whilst sitting at a machine sewing a pair of pants.
There is definitely a shift towards more sustainable fashion and also ethically and organically produced product, not just in the Fashion Industry but across all aspects of life. Consumers are becoming more socially responsible, and demanding quality over quantity.
There are also a lot of hidden costs going offshore, as well as issues with transporting across the boarders. Keeping manufacturing in Australia eliminates these issues, it also makes it easier for brands to follow their supply chain and remain transparent.
What can we do as consumers, to ensure we are supporting not only Australian Made but also Ethically Made?
I encourage everyone to access the Ethical Clothing Australia website to see a list of proudly accredited Brands that are made both Ethically and in Australia.
I'd like to say a huge thanks to Beth for sharing these insights into her everyday role at TCFU. I am certain that many Australian women assume that if they are buying something 'Australia Made', that it is being made Ethically ... but as Beth has highlighted for us in this interview, this is not always the case. It is more important than ever to be asking the question 'Who made my clothes' ... a fabulous campaign established by Fashion Revolution following the devastating Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh (2013).
By not asking the question, by not thinking about where our clothes have come from and who's hands have made them ... we are supporting the problem, not the solution.
Thanks for reading,