Swooning over fashion

In September 2012 Clean Clothes Campaign and our partners launched the first phase of our Pay a Living Wage Campaign.  Our partners in Cambodia were reporting a shocking rise in the number of incidents of fainting in factories because workers could not afford enough to eat.  To highlight this we launched the No More Excuses petition and called on H&M, Levis, GAP and Zara to immediately start paying a living wage.

What is the problem?

Poverty wages effect workers in many ways, from having to work excessive overtime just to pay the rent or being unable to refuse to enter unsafe buildings for fear of losing wages. 

But in Cambodia a shocking new consequence  of these poverty wages is being felt - hundreds of female garment workers have been fainting en mass in factories in Cambodian which supply clothes to European retailers because they haven’t had enough to eat, and are overworked.

The minimum wage in many cases is not even enough to buy food; that is why a living wage is needed

Catch 22

The Cambodian garment industry is predominantly young women who have children or older or sick relatives to support in the provinces.  Their wages are about 25% of the living wage calculated by the Asia Floor Wage and so many have to make daily choices between feeding themselves and educating their kids. This catch 22 has led to workers not eating enough and taking on long overtime shifts to make up the deficit in their wage packets.

In 2011 alone over 2400 workers fainted and were taken to hospital in 25 separate incidences. Unions say many more go unrecorded.

There can be no excuses

Despite evidence from the Workers Rights Consortium showing that workers are regularly facing a calorie deficit of over 500 kcal a day the clothing brands that source from Cambodia are non-committal in their response to the problem. Many have said the faintings were related to glue or fumes from chemical processes - despite many incidences occurring in well ventilated factories.

Government officials have been forced to admit that the faintings are related to inadequate salaries, and that these have an effect on workers’ nutrition and their ability to rest.

What did we do?

Our actions began in September 2012 when campaigners across Europe took part in mass faintings outside the stores of some of the major buyers from Bangladesh - H&M, GAP, Levi Strauss and Zara. 

  • In London and Bristol in the UK campaigners fainted in five H&M and GAP stores.
  • In the centre of Brussels, Belgium, a makeshift hospital was set up outside of H&M.
  • On Dam Square in Amsterdam, Netherlands, we joined forces with the StoereVrouwen for a strip for fair fashion. 
  • In Paris, France a mass faint-in took place outside H&M.
  • In Chicago, USA, on the biggest shopping day in the year - Black Friday - campaigners fainted outside H&M.
  • In Stockholm, Sweden, activists fainted outside H&Ms head office following the braodcast of a documentary highlighting the "cold facts" on H&M's practices in Cambodia.  
  • In Denmark campaigners continued to keep the pressure up.

36,938 people signed the NO MORE EXCUSES petition which went to the CEOs of H&M, Levi Strauss, GAP and Zara

Alternative labels

Across Europe alternative price tags were distributed throughout stores to raise awareness of the poverty wages received by the people making the clothes

The campaign activities continued to build  and in the run up to Christmas shoppers across Europe found alternative labels hidden in clothes in the four stores. 

In addition flashmobs took to the streets in Switzerland, Netherlands, Denmark, Poland and Norway. Asking shoppers to sign the living wage petition.

Conscious? Not really...

In Spring 2013, H&M one of the biggest buyers from Cambodia launched it's new Conscious collection.  We hit back with a spoof of the ad faeturing Vanessa Paradis alongside Cambodian workers images.

The action called on H&M to truly live up to it's claims of being a responsible, sustainable and conscious brand and start paying a living wage.

What the brands say

H&M logo

H&M's Head of Sustainability, Helena Helmersson wrote to us in September 2012. 

Here is what she said:

Dear all,

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.

Kind regards,


Our response

The Fair Wage concept is part of the Fair Wage Network, a collaboration between a wage practitioner and the FLA, working with companies to explore together what they can do to increase wages. 

While we welcome companies acting together to look into improving wages we have several concerns about this approach.

  1. Companies can participate with no commitment to a living wage benchmark, a roadmap or timeling for implementing a living wage.
  2. The approach includes a living wage as just one dimension of a fair wage.  For us a fair wage IS a living wage, all other definitions flow from this.
  3. No unions or worker representatives are members of the network, and thus marginalises the importance of grassroots or bottom up approaches such as the Asia Floor Wage.

While we welcome H&Ms involvement in the Fair Wage Network we hope that this it doesn't stop here.  It is a useful step but still falls a long way short of a commitment to pay a living wage.