Fair Go, FairWear

1 Comment

The sewing machine features prominently in many immigrant homes across Australia; It is a major source of income for some households. Often every member of the family will help out in making large batches of clothes, which will end up sold in stores across Australia.

First generation immigrant women make up the majority of outworkers who sew garments from home, often for as little as $2 to $3 an hour. Their numbers are estimated to range from 50,000 to 300,000 nationally.  In Australia, outworkers sew up to 90 percent of Australian Made clothes for major retailers, designers and for the firms that supply work wear and school uniforms. To fill their work orders, they often work up to 18 hours a day and 7 days a week. They have effectively replaced workers based in factories as clothing companies have found them a cheaper option.
Due to their isolated working conditions and sometimes poor command of English outworkers are vulnerable to exploitation and are in need of protection. They need legislation that protects their right to be recognized as employees and to receive wages and conditions equivalent to their factory counterparts. This legal recognition is vital in holding companies accountable for their practices. The clothing industry in Australia has historically insisted on treating outworkers as contractors, often entering into sham contractual arrangements where outworkers receive well below the legal minimum wage. 
FairWear, a community coalition campaign made up of churches, unions, community groups and outworkers has worked for the past decade to expose and prevent the exploitation of outworkers. Working in coalition with many groups including Oxfam, Brotherhood of Saint Laurence and the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union, FairWear lobbies for fairer wages and conditions for outworkers.

Recent campaigning on outwork issues has focused almost exclusively on efforts to preserve State and Federal protection for outworkers under the Governments’ changes to workplace laws. These protections include the right of an outworker to a minimum wage equivalent to their skill level, the ability to claim unpaid wages from employers and the capacity for the Clothing Textile and Footwear Union of Australia to prosecute companies who fail to provide outworkers with legal minimum working conditions.
In her testimony to the Senate Inquiry into Work Choices  (November, 2005), Helena Chong voiced the fears of outworkers : ‘We are scared of how bosses will exploit us further when we become independent contractors and their current treatment of us becomes legal…The outworkers I know generally get $4 an hour and even $3 an hour. … We are supposed to be employees now, but we are not treated that way. However, as long as the law clearly says we are employees then the union and government inspectors can make the bosses pay the award rates when they follow the supply chain through and prove our bosses are not paying us properly. … Give us back some hope for our future. Don’t legalise our exploitation but help to end it.’
A strong community campaign last year was able to maintain major protections under the new Work Choices legislation.  But outworkers and outworker advocates now face new challenges under new Independent Contractor’s legislation and the Government’s attempt to rationalize awards.

Whilst the Independent Contractor Bill tabled in Parliament last Thursday protects outwork State and Territory deeming laws by admitting that the ‘(...) Bill may particularly disadvantage contract outworkers, who are currently entitled to employee protections(…)’, FairWear are concerned that loopholes exist in the Bill that will leave the door open to unscrupulous employers.

Debbie Carstens from FairWear said of the legislation, ‘Migrant women outworkers sewing in the isolation of their homes don’t understand the legal technicalities of the difference between an employee and an independent contractor, but they do understand how their employers will use all available pressure and threats to convince them to accept wages and conditions below the legal minimums’.

In coming weeks the campaign will be working with the Federal Workplace Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews to address loopholes which could lead to increased vulnerability for outworkers in the Bill, before amendments are brought to the autumn session of Parliament.
At the same time as legislative debate is set to continue in parliament around the issue of independent contractors, a voluntary code of practice, which has been adopted by key textile industry groups has been significant in creating systemic change for outworkers. The Homeworkers Code of Practice successfully monitors the conditions and locations of local clothing manufacture and authorizes the use of the NoSweatShop Label. Companies who display this label as well as being ‘Australian Made’ are working in ethical ways. The Code is an initiative that is supported by established fashion icons such as Collette Dinnigan and is promoting a new ethical upswing in the industry.
Outworkers will only enjoy fair wages and working conditions when their rights are both enshrined in law and fully respected in their working environment. The Federal Government has a corresponding responsibility to maintain the current level of protection for outworkers, and to provide further strong incentives for companies to comply with these laws. When strong laws are in place and ethical industry practice is commonplace, $2 an hour will hopefully become a thing of the past.



submit a comment

Existing comments

AWESOME site but i wouldn't come back after today!

Leila | 04 May 2010  

Similar Articles

Could Australia become another island in the Indonesian archipelago?

  • Paul Osborne
  • 26 June 2006

Mr Howard has travelled to Indonesia to mend the rift in relations betwen the two countries. Critics of the proposed legislation designed to appease Indonesia, fear that Australia is in serious danger of surrendering its sovereignty by allowing another country to force its hand on policy matters, such as migration.


A more sustainable Australia needs better public policy

  • Michael Mullins & James Massola
  • 26 June 2006

Eureka Street supports the efforts of a rival online publication to encourage political parties to make policy that moves beyond political expediency and 'what's in it for me?'  



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up