In 15 of the top 21 countries that export garments to the United States, workers make just about a third, or 36.8 percent, of what would amount to a living wage before taxes or any overtime pay, according to a new report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress. The countries studied comprise nearly 80 percent of all apparel imports to the U.S. The wage situation looks pretty much the same as a decade ago.
In Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest apparel exporter that has come under scrutiny after a deadly factory collapse in April, workers make just 14 percent of a living wage. In the other top three exporters to the U.S., China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, workers make 36 percent, 22 percent, and 29 percent, respectively.
The report notes, “To our knowledge, only one apparel factory in a developing country — the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic — has been certified as actually paying a living wage.”
The report also finds that wages have been declining in many countries over the past decade. In five of the top ten exporters — Bangladesh, Mexico, Honduras, Cambodia, and El Salvador — wages declined in real terms by an average of 14.6 percent from 2001 to 2011. Mexico saw the largest drop, at nearly 30 percent. The decline in Bangladesh, of 2.37 percent, was much more modest, moderated by a significant increase in the minimum wage in 2010.
A silver lining exists in four other top ten countries: Prevailing real wages rose in China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam by an average of 55.2 percent, or just less than 6 percent per year, in the same time period. The gains in India, however, were just 1.3 percent per year.
Working conditions in the garment industry have come under increased scrutiny in recent months. The factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,127 workers has prompted two proposals from major retailers to upgrade the safety conditions in the factories they use. Workers in Cambodia have also been protesting to demand higher wages and have been met with violence and termination.