H&M’s response and why it is not enough
(find this post and many others on our dedicated living wage campaign blog)
After writing to H&M last week about wages in Cambodia we have received an initial brief response from H&M’s head of sustainability, Helena Helmersson. Here is our feeling about what is being said, and why excuses like these are no longer good enough when talking about living wages.
H&M’s response to the Clean Clothes Campaign network (below) says that they have chosen to approach the ‘wage problem’ through a corporate initiative called the ‘Fair Wage Network.’
Sent on 19th September:
I just want to confirm that we have received your mail and the information about the public campaign.
As you know wages is one of our top priorities and we have chosen to work with the Fair wage concept which we believe has a more sustainable approach to the wage problem. We also see that collaboration is crucial to be able to drive improvements in the area, which is why it is very important for us to work closely with for example ILO/BFC, ITG and other brands.
H & M HENNES & MAURITZ AB. CSR DEPARTMENT
This basically says that, although the living wage figure we are calling for and the route to achieving it proposed by workers and unions is fine, H&M have chosen to adopt a different strategy, not based on workers needs or their demands and one which we believe offers no guarantee that wages will increase to a living wage level.
What is the Fair Wage concept?
The Fair Wage network was set up by academics from FLA and ILO to work alongside companies to explore together what they can do to increase wages. Through a series of pilot projects and studies, the network is exploring dimensions of a ‘fair wage’ (defined as a ‘Company practices that lead to sustainable wage developments’). The fair wage concept will output a series of tools or systems that companies can use in factories to increase wages to a sustainable level.
While we welcome the idea of companies and academics creating a learning and sharing platform on living wage issues, our first concern is that this platform allows its members to participate without committing to a benchmark, a road map and a timeline for implementing a living wage. Public company commitment to not just increase wages (this could mean anything), but to increase wages to a living wage level, defined by a real figure, is essential if the process is going to count. Without a real commitment to a real figure, companies are able to hide behind their participation in CSR initiatives and offer this as a response to consumer questions without the guarantee that workers will eventually receive a wage that lets them live with dignity.
Secondly, companies taking part in the fair wage network approach seem to be using it to ‘de-value’ the importance of living wage as a human right and instead reduce it to a focus on technical issues which results in a mere programme for minimum wage monitoring. The network is investigating 12 fair wage dimensions, one of which is the living wage. For us, a living wage isn’t just a thing to consider as part of a list of many options. A fair wage is a living wage, and all other definitions flow from this.
Thirdly, the Fair Wage Network approach does not provide a strong space for unions and civil society (even though it does recognize the importance of collective bargaining) and instead tends to marginalise grassroots and bottom-up initiatives as the Asia Floor Wage (AFW). No unions or worker representatives are members of the network, rather their views are consulted as part of pilot projects. This adds up to a situation where decisions about what is best for workers and their wages is made without workers themselves. It creates a space where companies participate on a pick and choose basis with no strong committed dialogue at the workplace level with trade unions and CSOs more generally.
A better way
While we certainly think it is fine for H&M to take part in the Fair Wage Network, we hope that it doesn’t stop here. As has been shown above, the fair wage concept is useful, but is a far cry from a commitment to a pay a living wage.