Fashion Revolution Week commemorated the Rana Plaza Tragedy on April 13 in Bangladesh where more than 1100 workers died when the building collapsed in 2013.
As more and more consumers are interested in where their clothing is produced and the conditions in which they are made — can the Pacific lead the way forward in the ethical production of clothing?
Fiji has an eye on becoming the fashion capital of the Pacific with some 8000 people now employed in a revitalised garment industry.
Indeed viewing the websites of most of Fiji’s major garment industry manufacturers including United Apparel and Mark One – production houses for corporate uniforms and sports clothing respectively – the factories all appear modern, clean and kitted out with the latest sewing machinery.
Kaushik Kumar, Chairman of the Fiji Textile Clothing & Footwear Council says all members of the TCF Council of Fiji comply with the Government’s minimum wages. The Ministry conducts regular checks and employees are able to lodge the concerns with the Labour Ministry if they are not being paid the correct wage, he said. Mr Kumar, who is also the Managing Director of Fiji’s United Apparel Company said in an earlier interview with Pacific Periscope wages paid to his workers were higher than minimum.
Government minimum wage rates in Fiji were raised to $2.32 on July 1, 2015 for 45 to 48 hours per week. These rates were higher than workers in competitor countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam and worker conditions are considered better. With the garment industry battling hard to revitalise and reach the record high employment numbers in the industry of 18,000 employees across the industry with $500 million in exports it is aiming to achieve this goal through its ethical production.
Fashion Council Chairman Faraz Ali said, the TCF’s industry average wage was closer to $3 per hour.
“It must be understood that the minimum wage already makes Fiji an expensive destination for garment production. So whilst the current wage rate may not encourage the establishment of large volume factories, it certainly does keep our niche producers competitive, and has also encouraged the development of a high end, sophisticated garment industry catering to luxury cliental in many instances.
“Wages in the sector have in fact doubled in the last 10 to 15 years, so we are certainly progressing in the right direction. Living standards, in comparison to employees in garment industries in comparable economies, is certainly better,” Mr Ali said.
“Fijian made goods, regardless of industry, are considered world class, and there is quality associated with the name “Fiji”. Our garment factories produce for some of the world’s best designers, retailers and schools. So indeed standards will not only be met but exceeded. Ethical standards to comparable economies are most certainly amongst the highest,” he added.
To promote the industry, “Make it in Fiji” is the Fiji TCF Council’s initiative to “foster the continued development and prosperity of the industry in Fiji.”
TCF offers a certification programme based on a detailed audit of factory operations, maintaining standards, certification on an annual basis. Certification ranges from an A rating where the company is fully compliant to D rating described as major issues found.
In other Pacific Island countries, too, the industry is pursuing fair wage policies. Leading Samoan clothing manufacturer and exporter MENA’s Agnes Loheni says MENA has always paid above the minimum rates for both manufacturing and retail in Samoa. “This is why we have been able to maintain a low staff turnover and therefore our staff have grown with us and have greater knowledge and understanding of our brand.”
Cook Islands clothing manufacturer TAV’s Ellena Tavioni agrees Fiji is the garment manufacturing hub in the Pacific. They have established factories, skilled labour, attractive exchange rates and low wages making this possible.
However, she said she did not believe wages had to be that low. “The international market expects low production rates out of e.g. China but not necessarily the Pacific.” But she said she would choose Fiji instead of China to keep her label Pacific made. All TAV clothing is currently made in the Cook Islands.
“More and more consumers these days are happy to pay for fair trade – a market we prefer to target. To increase TAV production without outlaying on new buildings, machinery and training, Fiji is the solution,” she said.
TAV is basically a cottage industry with one small factory in the Cook Islands. Materials are washed ironed and block printed in four-metre pieces.
“We are lucky that we don’t rely on overseas printers and everything is done in house. No Fashion Council, no support from Government and TAV covers employee training costs.
“The minimum wage in the Cooks is higher than other Pacific Islands at $6.25. However, the practiced average wage is closer to $8.00,” Ms Tavioni said.