As the exploitation of garment workers in Mauritius comes under fresh scrutiny in a British newspaper, the reality is in fact worse than reported says IndustriALL Global Union.
The Daily Mail exposé found that women garment workers producing a T-shirt with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like” for upmarket UK fashion chain Whistles, were earning just 1 US$ an hour and sleeping 16 to a room in bunk beds.
Union leader Jane Ragoo from IndustriALL Global Union Mauritian affiliate, CMCTEU, says: “It is outrageous. Just because a t-shirt is expensive and bears an ethical message, doesn’t mean it is made ethically. Garment workers in Mauritius, who are mostly women, are working very long hours on very low pay.”
A garment worker toiling six days a week will earn only 6,000 rupees (US$190) per month. Like anyone working in the export sector in Mauritius, they are bound by law to work 45 hours per week plus compulsory overtime of ten hours per week.
An estimated 65,000 people work in the textile sector in the country, of which around 15,000 are migrants. Many of them come from Bangladesh where wages are some of the lowest in the world.
Exploitation of migrant workers is particularly bad, says Ragoo:
“Migrants are forbidden to join a union so they can’t stand up for themselves as a group. If they become ill and need surgical treatment, they are immediately sacked and sent home, even though there is supposedly free health care in Mauritius. The Ministry of Labour sanctions their dismissal by withdrawing their working permit. There is no possibility to appeal before a court of law.”
Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT), the textile company implicated in the tabloid story, employs 10,000 workers, of which many are migrants.
“Authorities inspect the company lodgings for migrant workers, granting permission for a limited number of people per dwelling. The problem is that the textile companies will then overcrowd the dormitories, meaning the women lack any privacy or even space to put their clothes and belongings,” reveals Ragoo.
Unions in the country are campaigning for a national minimum wage of 9,000 rupees (US$284) a month for all workers. However, even this is way below the estimated monthly living wage is 14,500 rupees (US$458).
Minimum wage increases in Mauritius are made at the discretion of the labour Minister and have not been updated in most industries for many years.
An estimated 100,000 of the 550,000 working population in Mauritius earn below $130 per month, which means they are living in extreme poverty. Of these 100,000, 85 per cent are women.
Jenny Holdcroft at IndustriALL Global Union, which represents garment workers at the international level, said:
“Exploitation of garment workers is rife, not just in Mauritius but the across the developing world. Fashion retailers make massive markups at the expense of workers while claiming to be socially responsible. The only way pay and conditions will improve for garment workers is if they have better rights and stronger employment laws - and that’s what unions are fighting for in all countries where clothes are made."