Australian companies have made good progress in ensuring workers in their supply chains aren't being exploited but there is much more work yet to be done with many brands still earning a failing or poor grade.

That’s the findings of the latest Baptist World Aid report into the Australian fashion industry – the third of its kind - which has given an A to F grading to more than 300 global and domestic fashion brands based on the strength of the systems they have in place to counter the risks of forced labour, child labour and exploitation in global supply chains.

ENSURING A LIVING WAGE AND FAIR WORKING CONDITIONS: Baptist World Aid Australia's report into the fashion industry is aimed at helping to ensure garment workers, such as these pictured in India, are not subject to exploitation. PICTURE: Courtesy: Baptist World Aid Australia

“Even though now we’re seeing the majority of companies – (about) 80 per cent – making an effort to trace back, during that final stage of manufacturing, to their fabric mill, only one-third of companies actually know where the majority of their fabric mills are. And only five per cent of companies know where their cotton suppliers are or their raw materials."

- Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid

The report – which this year used a an "enhanced" tool to decide gradings - found that while six of the 87 companies featured scored A grades and 25 Bs, nine received an F and 11 just passing grades of D. The average grade was C+.

Among those who received the highest grades were Fairtrade brands Etiko and Audrey Blue (which includes Mighty Good Undies) - both of which received an A+, as well as Inditex (Zara) – which received an A, and the Adidas Group, Liminal Apparel, Patagonia and Rrepp – which all received an A-. A number of Australian brands – such as the Cotton On Group and Pacific Brands - received a B+.

The poorest performers – all of whom didn't take part in the research process – include Ally Fashion, Boohoo, Brand Collective, Factory X, General Pants, Pavement United Brands, Roger David, Seed Heritage and Voyager Distributing Co.

Among the biggest improvers, meanwhile, are APG & Co, Industrie and David Jones.

Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid, says it’s almost three years since the first Australian Fashion Report was produced in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 in which more than 1,100 garment workers were killed.

“In that time we’ve been able to track the progress of individual companies as well as the industry as a whole and there’s been a lot of promising progress...” he says. “We know now that more companies are taking action to trace their supply chain and work out who their fabric suppliers are, and more companies are taking action to see whether their workers are earning a decent wage or a living wage - enough to cover the basics they need to survive as well as having a little bit of emergency saving left over for themselves and their dependants.”

But, Mr Nimbalker adds, “there’s a lot more that still needs to be done". “Even though now we’re seeing the majority of companies - (about) 80 per cent - making an effort to trace back, during that final stage of manufacturing, to their fabric mills, only one third of companies actually know where the majority of their fabric mills are. And only five per cent of companies know where their cotton suppliers are - or their raw materials. It’s a huge concern because we know it’s those areas which are unseen or unmonitored that are at the worst risk of the most terrible forms of worker rights abuse.”

Mr Nimbalker and his team recently spent some time in India, where 16.8 million people are employed in the garment sector, visiting fabric mills.

“While there we met girl after girl that was being exploited in some absolutely horrible ways. A number of these girls had been working at the mills since they were just 12 or 13-years-old, they were being paid as little as 80 cents Australian per day, and they were being forced to work long hours where they were often verbally abused and sexually abused as well. They were terrible working conditions...and yet the fabrics they were making were feeding their way back into the Western supply chains...”

Unless companies are investing in finding out who their suppliers are, Mr Nimbalker says, “how can they know that the workers are being protected from these types of abuses?” “We want to see more action from companies...to know not just who their final stage manufacturers are but who their input suppliers are as well as their raw materials.”

Mr Nimbalker said that up until the Rana Plaza collapse focused world attention on the issue, Australian companies had been “laggards” in the ensuring workers were being protected down their supply chains.

“We were certainly trailing what we were seeing in Europe and what we were seeing in the United States,” he says. “But all of that has started to change - we’re playing catch-up in some pretty strong ways.”

"For us, it’s exciting to see a number of Australian brands really ratcheting up how much they’re doing to make sure they’re paying workers better and they’re starting to deal with the problems of slavery and child labour in their supply chains."

- Gershon Nimbalker, advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid

While international brands such as Zara, Patagonia and Adidas are the world leaders in terms of making sure supply chain workers were protected, Mr Nimbalker says local brands such as Cotton On, Pacific Brands – who own Bonds and APG & Co - whose brands include Sportscraft, JAG and Willow, were now “hot on their heels”.

“For us, it’s exciting to see a number of Australian brands really ratcheting up how much they’re doing to make sure they’re paying workers better and they’re starting to deal with the problems of slavery and child labour in their supply chains."

The growing engagement of companies with the issue can also be seen in the fact while some 54 per cent of companies mentioned in the first Baptist World Aid fashion report engaged directly with the research process, that figure has since risen to 78 per cent - a figure which comes despite a 50 per cent increase in the number of companies examined in this year's report over last year's.

“It’s really exciting to see that more companies are seeing this as a benchmarking tool and as a valuable exercise to engage with to inform the public about what they’re doing to protect workers.”

The report - the sixth Baptist World Aid have produced targeting the fashion and electronics industries (Mr Nimbalker says the organisation is currently running at capacity and donations would certainly be welcome to expand the project) – comes in the same week Oxfam released a “scorecard” on the transparency of Australian fashion brands globally.

It found that of 12 major Australian retailers, just five - Kmart, Target, Coles, the Specialty Fashion Group (owner of Rivers, Katies and Millers) and Woolworths – had taken strong action to ensure the transparency if their supply chains while other brands – including Cotton On, Best & Less and the Just Group (owner of Just Jeans and Peter Alexander) - still haven’t published the names and locations of their factories on their websites.

The scorecard was released at the same time as a survey of 1,000 Australians showing that 89 per cent of Australians are willing to pay more for clothing from a company that ensures its workers have safe and decent conditions.

Meanwhile, Baptist World Aid’s Mr Nimbalker says it is critical consumers continue to engage with research such as that contained in the Australian Fashion Report and “vote with their wallets” by choosing to purchase from those companies that were doing more to protect workers and then letting the companies know of their support.

“Because we know that as companies know consumers are interested in this, that’s when they feel much more motivated to improve the quality of their systems.”

As well as the report, a portable guide - which can be taken with you when shopping - is available via the website - www.behindthebarcode.org.au.

~ www.behindthebarcode.org.au

~ www.oxfam.org.au/media/files/2016/04/160421-Oxfam-Still-in-the-Dark-Scorecard-FINAL.pdf