Minimum Wage vs Living Wage: Whose rights get slashed in fast fashion’s race to the bottom?

5am: You wake up and get dressed. You make your way to the bus stop and begin the daily commute.

5.50am: The bus arrives in the bustling city. You make your way by foot to the factory and get ready for the day to start, with the first shift at 6am.

1pm: You eat soup for lunch containing 500-600 calories. If you’re lucky, you might get the last portion in the pot which will contain a bit of oil to supplement your energy needs for the rest of the day.

6pm: After 12 hours of work, you leave the factory and make your way home to begin again in less than 12 hours.

You manage the whole day on less than £1.


Although the specifics of this routine will vary slightly for each person, this is quite a typical day for a garment worker in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where many of the major international clothing brands have their factories. On top of unsafe working conditions and excruciatingly long hours (typically between 10 and 12 hours a day), the minimum wage in Cambodia stands at around £51/month. On average, around £7 of that will go on rent, £14 will be used to support family, such as paying school fees and looking after elderly relatives, and £7 will go on basic amenities such as clothes and toothpaste and soap. That leaves £28 a month for food–that’s less than £1 a day. It is clear that rather than providing a wage to live off, the minimum wage for garment workers in Cambodia ends in extreme poverty and deprivation.

The minimum wage in the UK currently stands at £7.05 an hour for those under 25 and £7.50 for over 25s. However, the Living Wage Foundation calculates that the actual hourly pay necessary to live off for 18s and older is £8.75 across the UK and £10.20 in London. Even in the UK the minimum wage as stipulated by the Government is not equal to the living wage.


What is a living wage?

A living wage for any worker should be enough to cover the basic needs of a person and their family. It has been stated as a fundamental human right by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which stipulates that “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity” (Article 23).

Despite the declaration’s use of masculine pronouns, it is estimated that around 80% of garment workers around the world are women aged between 18 and 35, many of whom have children and elderly relatives to support. Minimum wage should align with living wage to cover the basic living costs of a household (i.e. one working adult and three dependents), which range from education and food to healthcare and accommodation.


living wage

Credit: The Clean Clothes Campaign


While the UK minimum wage is a pound or two shy of the living wage, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has calculated that in countries such as Cambodia and India, the living wage of £204/month is 4 times the minimum wage. Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), an international alliance of garment trade unions and labour rights activists from across Asia, has worked out the living wages across all main garment-producing Asian countries, exposing the huge disparities between the minimum and living wages of garment workers.

In Bangladesh, for instance, the monthly living wage is given as 29,442 takas, only 18% of which is covered by the actual minimum wage. Even in China the minimum wage only accounts for 53% of the living wage. It is clear that for garment workers in these countries, minimum wage equals poverty.


living wage

Extract from The Stitched Up Report (2014) by The Clean Clothes Campaign


 What is being done?

Organizations such as ILO currently publish reports and statistics detailing the minimum and living wages in the global garment industry, thus helping to expose the human rights violations carried out in the name of fast fashion and campaigning for regulations to be put in place which protect the workers themselves.

Women’s rights charities such as The Circle are also working to ensure that workers in the global garment industry receive a living wage by launching a two-year campaign to stop the current “race to the bottom” and instead create a “race to the top” protecting the rights of millions of workers and paying them a living wage. One way that we can help is to donate to the work of charities such as The Circle and to join in signing petitions that demand equal living and minimum wage for garment workers, such as this one by the Clean Clothes Campaign: If we all give what we can, we can help support the rights of garment workers and call for an end to the poverty wage.

living wage

Picture credit: The Circle


Written by: Hannah Roberts, volunteering contributor at AmaElla



Labour Behind The Label

The Circle

Stitched Up Report by The Clean Clothes Campaign

The Living Wage Foundation

The International Labour Organisation

Fashion Revolution