Between October 2011 and December 2014, Jill Tucker worked as chief technical adviser to the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program. In that time, the country’s garment industry expanded substantially, and worker protests for higher wages led to violent crackdowns early last year, with at least four deaths. This year, Tucker started a new job in Hong Kong. As the second anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, approaches on Friday, Tucker reflects here on the industry in Cambodia and beyond.
WWD: Now that you’ve had some time away from Cambodia, how do you view efforts to improve garment factory conditions?
Jill Tucker: I think the hardest piece in this whole world is the consumer piece — nobody’s really gotten that right.
WWD: What do you mean by that?
J.T.: There are all sorts of levers we can pull to try to improve working conditions. But the lever that has been pulled most is the brand lever — shaming the brand and getting the brand to take responsibility for the factories. Few efforts focus on government enforcement. Few focus on consumers — to really get those consumers to change their behavior. The media exposes these issues to consumers, and that’s important. But exposure and behavior change are so different. There’s a big gulf between them. That’s something we all need to work on. My personal opinion is that consumers simply need to pay more. When you improve working conditions, it’s not a zero sum game. You need to pay money. The brands need to pay it, the factory needs to pay it, consumers need to pay it.
WWD: What are some of the biggest changes you witnessed in the Cambodian garment industry?
J.T.: The industry started exploding. During the financial crisis, it contracted a bit. But by 2011 it was booming again. In the years of my stay, the number of factories nearly doubled. The profile of the buyers changed over time. When BFC started in 2001, it was largely a U.S.-focused export industry. By the time I left, not only was Europe almost the same size as the U.S., but there were so many other buyers — Japan had become important, Korea, even China.
Many — not all — U.S. buyers are reputation-sensitive and they push for change. A lot more [new] buyers were not reputation-sensitive and not pushing for change. There was this subset of factories we could audit from now until kingdom come and they didn’t care.
WWD: In March 2014, BFC launched an online Transparency Database of factory compliance records. What happened?
J.T.: More factories cared, and buyers got more sensitive. The government got involved — especially with factories that fell into the low-compliance category. That is, they have the worst scores in the country, bringing down the reputation of Cambodia. The government has gotten involved, trying to get them to improve. Activating the government is really important.
WWD: Buyers that don’t care: where are they from?
J.T.: Everywhere. They’re from Europe, from the U.S. You and I buy things from those buyers. There are just tons of brands. The top 10, 20, maybe 30 are familiar names. Nevertheless, you’ve got hundreds of these other brands we’ve never heard of — they don’t care.
WWD: What are the biggest challenges for garment workers?
J.T.: Really and truly it all comes down to money. Workers need more money. In Cambodia they’ve had large wage increases in the past couple of years, but so have their housing costs increased, so have food costs. And Cambodian workers are not just supporting themselves, they’re supporting family members. Half a million Cambodian workers in the export garment industry are supporting in some way another two million Cambodians.
Right now the minimum wage is $128 per month — that’s just for your normal workweek, not for overtime. If that was doubled, would there be less poverty and would they be better off? Undoubtedly.
WWD: Who is responsible for the status quo?
J.T.: We all have responsibilities. Consumers don’t pay enough. Governments do not enforce their own laws. Brands don’t take responsibility unless they’re forced. Factories could do so much better at being productive and communicating with workers. There’s enough blame to go around, but that means we all can do something.
Consumers — you can find out more about companies, and you can choose to buy more ethically. We do that with our food. We care what we eat. We care what goes into our bodies, but we don’t care that much what goes on our bodies. It just doesn’t affect us the same way.
I envision a world where every tag on a garment tells you exactly where it was produced. Not just made in Cambodia, but made in this factory. And you can scan the QR code and find out something about the factory.
WWD: How far are we from that?
J.T.: We are the distance of the will of brands. That’s it. It’s been done. If we wanted to do that today, the technology exists.
WWD: Overall, are you optimistic?
J.T.: I know there are powerful stakeholders that don’t want to change business as usual. Whenever you’re fundamentally striving for a shift, it’s controversial. People who are winning the game are going to hang on for dear life. It’s an issue of power.
But over time, yes, there will be change. A decade from now, we’re going to be paying more for our clothes and some things that are not normal now — like transparency of audit results — I think will become more normal. But how do we accelerate the pace of the change so workers aren’t exploited and dying during that time before the change comes? That’s really the issue.
Priya Haji — she died at a young age — I like her quote: “Dream a solution the size of the problem you’re addressing.” You have to do that otherwise we’re just tinkering. Why bother?
We’ve been tinkering in this field for a long time. We need to stop tinkering. There needs to be fundamental change.