Late last month, the Australian Parliament passed the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill into law. The new law comes as a result of concerns for outworkers, also called homeworkers (mostly women). These are the people who take on contract work to cut and sew garments for fashion designers. The law addresses the unequal position of these outworkers, who are at the bottom of the supply chain and often forgotten. They often receive very low wages and enter into shady contracts, because they don’t know any better and need work. Overtime is not paid and they often have to meet strict deadlines because of how fast fashion trends come and go.
The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia’s (TCFUA) National Secretary, Ms Michele O’Neil noted that:
Forcing sham contracts on the textile, clothing and footwear industry outworkers has been endemic. Sweatshops too have continued to flourish with little scrutiny. This law means that, whatever they are called or wherever they work, textile, clothing and footwear industry outworkers and workers in sweatshops are entitled to be treated with the same dignity under the law as any other Australian employee. These workers will now be entitled to receive the same minimum wages and conditions as every other worker int he industry.
Therefore these outworkers will now have the same status, protections and entitlements as employees under the Fair Work Act. They will also be allowed to recover unpaid wages and entitlements up the supply chain when their employer refuses to pay them.
On the day the Bill was passed into law, Ms Michele O’Neil, said that:
This is an historic day. Over the last 15 years the Parliament has heard evidence, shocking in its consistency regarding the systemic exploitation of outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry. This is an issue in which the jury is well and truly in. We congratulate the Gillard Government for taking this critical step in legislating to improve the working and personal lives of some of Australia’s most disadvantaged workers.
The legislation allows the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union to enter and identify sweatshops and assist employees working in unacceptable conditions. Ms O’Neil therefore sent a strong message to unscrupulous companies:
The reputable employers int he industry have nothing to fear from these laws, but those who continue to shamelessly exploit vulnerable workers are on notice. We are determined to clean up this industry. Its future lies in great design, innovation and ethical production.
Critics of the new law
There are critics of this new legislation. The major critic is the Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia, the body which represents the fashion industry. In a recent submission to review the Fair Work Act, it acknowledged that there were vulnerable outworkers, but that most participants in the textile, clothing and footwear industry do not fit in the vulnerable category and should not be defined as outworkers. The critics fear that the new regime and classifications removes flexibility from the industry; prevent the employment of casual workers and contractors working from home.
Another major issue with this new legislation is the demand that companies provide at least 20 hours of work per week to outworkers. Fashion label Myrtle and Dove stated that the new law makes it difficult for the label to hire local seamstresses for cutting jobs. The fashion house normally gives 30 apparels a week to cut, which is a two hour job to outworkers. Undoubtedly, Myrtle and Dove will have to assess whether they can afford to continue giving this type of work to outworkers.
The fear is therefore mounting, that this new legislation will see to the downfall of Australia’s domestic fashion industry. What is to stop designers from outsourcing these jobs once reserved for local outworkers, to other countries – in Asia for example.
It is in deed a challenge to balance all interests. The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia is adamant however that the new law is fair and ethical. They have highlighted some new myths about the law.
From your legal Fashionista,