The $16.8-billion Australian fashion industry is keeping its Asian workers, especially women, trapped in poverty by denying them their basics of a decent life, according to an Oxfam report released Monday.
The report, "Made in Poverty: The True Price of Fashion", has found that nine out of every 10 people, who work for large Australian brands in Bangladesh, cannot even afford enough food for themselves and their families.
The non-profit said it has interviewed 470 workers employed at garment factories in Bangladesh and Vietnam for "the first in-depth investigation of its kind into the supply chains of big Australian brands".
The report "exposes the hardships of everyday life for the workers, mainly women, who are an essential part of a lucrative industry - and yet who struggle every day to put enough food on the table".
It found that 100 percent of surveyed workers in Bangladesh and 74 percent in Vietnam making clothes for the industry, which was worth 23 billion Australian dollars (nearly $16.8) in 2018, were paid below living wages, making them unable to make their ends meet even after working overtime.
"Even if overtime income is considered, over 98 percent workers in Bangladesh and 52 percent workers in Vietnam earn below a living wage compared against Global Living Wage Coalition benchmarks."
Some 91 percent of workers in Bangladesh survive on pulses, rice and potatoes - and sometimes eating a sickly mix of old, fermented rice with chili in order to feel fuller throughout the day.
"Called 'watery rice', the fermentation in this mix also makes it mildly alcoholic, and women use it to numb some of the pain of sitting for hours a day at their sewing workstations," the report said.
In Vietnam, comparatively higher wages make the situation less extreme but a sizeable 28 percent of garment workers still reported that their wage was just not enough to sustain them and their family for the entire month.
"The long hours of work for many garment workers in Vietnam also causes nutrition problems, as workers struggle to make as many pieces as possible to meet their targets and increase their pay."
According to the report, 76 percent of the Bangladeshi workers do not have running water in their homes and one in three workers are separated from their children, mostly due to a lack of adequate income.
In Bangladesh, 73 percent of the workers and 53 percent in Vietnam cannot afford medical treatment when they get sick or injured.
Major brands, including Kmart and Cotton On, have increased their annual revenue by over one billion Australian dollars but have failed to bring about changes in the lives of people engaged in making their clothes in developing countries, according to the report.
"Australian brands are an integral part of the system that keeps these women trapped in poverty. They have the power and must take steps that will enable these workers to lift themselves out of poverty," says Oxfam Australia chief Helen Szoke in the report.
Oxfam said fashion brands could ensure living wages for women across Asia merely by increasing the sale cost of the average item of clothing sold in Australia by one percent.
The non-profit defines living wages as those which allow workers to buy enough nutritious food, live in decent housing, send their children to school and get healthcare when they are sick.
"The first step is for iconic Australian brands to commit to a clear strategy and timeline that will help guarantee the payment of living wages to the workers making their clothes," Szoke said.