Interview with SACOM’s Sophie Chen: “Violation of Human Rights at UNIQLO Factories Continues”
Fast Retailing (FR) has grown to become Japan’s top fashion enterprise, known for selling high quality clothes at relatively low prices under the brand name UNIQLO. One would assume that such high performance is due to efforts including planning and reducing waste in the entire chain from production to sales. Instead, there is a dark side to the success of FR and UNIQLO including long overtime conditions and general violations of workers’ human rights. Consumers Union of Japan talked to Sophie Chen at the Hong Kong-based NGO Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) when she visited Tokyo in March, 2016, together with Human Rights Now. This was her second visit to Japan after revealing the results of SACOM’s first investigation in January, 2015.
Q: Please tell us about the purpose of your second visit to Japan!
A: In January 2015, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), Labour Action China (LAC), and a Tokyo-based organization, Human Rights Now, jointly launched the first investigation into labour conditions at two of UNIQLO’s key suppliers in China: Pacific Textile Ltd (Pan Yu) and Dongguan Luen Thai Garment Co., Ltd. Fast Retailing acknowledged the validity of several of our findings. In July 2015 they released a CSR action report listing the corrections they claimed to have done. For example, they suggested reducing the amount of overtime at the factories and a renewal of the drainage system to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals. Following this, we completed a follow-up investigation to examine whether the corrective measures FR claimed had in fact been done, and to check the current working condition in both factories. We found that employers still don’t pay the mandatory social insurance premiums, which include pension and maternity leave insurance. Workers are not educated about the risks associated with chemicals, and protective gear is not made available. As for overtime, it is still not unusual for workers to do up to 150 hours a month, in addition to their regular 160 hours.
The purpose of this visit is to make Japanese consumers aware of the violations against workers’ human rights in new factories in China and Cambodia. This is the reality. For example, labour unions that should represent the workers and propose improvements are being pressured by the factory owners, and fair union elections are difficult to carry out. There have even been cases of dismissal and police arrests of union leaders.
Q: What does Fast Retailing say?
A: Well, the factories that makes UNIQLO’s clothes insist that the responsibility lies with Fast Retailing, but at the same time, the brand itself is where the real profits come. Thus UNIQLO’s role in the big supply chain means that they should shoulder the largest responsibility. It could be argued that the severe working conditions are a direct result of FR’s high quality standards. Factories that don’t deliver will not get the contracts, and penalties are imposed when there are delays or issues. Due to the low profit margin at the factory level, the workers’ salaries are low. This means that workers must work overtime to be able to make a living. Companies like H&M have shown that it is possible to step in and change the conditions for the factory workers that supply their clothes. We are simply asking Fast Retailing to make these changes.
Q: What can consumers do?
A: When buying clothes, people need to think about the working conditions and imagine the situation that those who make them are in. When consumers start making an appeal to producers, their voices cannot be ignored. For example, it is effective to ask Fast Retailing about their CSR report. It will also be necessary to accept that we have to pay a higher price. It is worth pointing out that the inexpensive clothes are the reason people are being exploited. Don’t you think it is important to walk around dressed in a way that you know you have paid a fair price for?
(Interview by Yoko Sugiura & Kaori Hirouchi. Article first published in CUJ’s newsletter, Shouhisha Report No. 1584 April 20, 2016))