(First published in Norwegian 12 Apr 2005)
By Pia Gaarder
The report “Powerful Brand Clothes: The Suppliers’ Iron Grip” is the second part in the Norwatch Theme series. It highlights how the system of suppliers in the textile business creates increasingly tougher day-to-day conditions for the 100-120 million textile workers in the poor parts of the world.
The problem, however, applies not only to the factories that manufacture the clothes, but also to the supplychain behind, which weaves, spins and produces raw materials such as cotton. On the lowest rung of the ladder are the pickers in the developing countries, mostly women and young girls. They work under a contract, not for hourly wages, but receive far less than the minimum wage. And they have no social rights.
The cotton pickers are the worst paid of them all. They live from hand to mouth, and on the cotton markets in Pakistan they can, in high season, make 60 percent of the minimum wage – which already is very hard - if not possible - to live on.
In the report “Powerful Brand Clothes”, Norwatch calculated how much the pickers get of the retail price for cotton clothes. The starting point is a normal pieceworkwage at a cotton market in Pakistan, which is 2 rupees, or 0.25 Norwegian kroner per kilogram in October 2003.
A kilogram of newly picked cotton consists mostly of seeds. They amount to 66 percent of the weight; the fibres 33 percent, and the waste 1 percent. This means that approximately 3 kg newly picked cotton is needed to produce 1 kg raw cotton. The pickers’ work then totals 0.75 kroner of the price of 1 kg raw cotton.
When the raw cotton is spun, an average of 14 percent is lost in the refining process. Ca. 86 percent, or 860 g/kg raw cotton, becomes cotton thread. It takes thus 3 kg of newly picked cotton – and 0.75 kroner to the picker – to make 860 g of cotton-thread.
To make 1 kg thread, it takes 3.49 kg raw cotton, paid with 0.873 kroner to the picker. One hundred grams of cotton thread entails in other words a salary to the pickers of 0.087 kroner.
A T-shirt that weighs 150 g and costs 150 kroner, has an 0.13 kroner expense in wages to the picker, meaning 0.087 percent.
A pair of trousers that contains 500 g of cotton and has a retail price of 800 kroner entails an expense to the picker totalling 0.435 kroner, or 0.054 percent.
There are obviously many other people and other factors that contribute to the price calculation in the value chain. The cotton farmers’ biggest expense is pesticides and watering the plants. The wages to the women who pick and to the men who carry the heavy cotton balls are considered a small expense even to the farmer. Further up in the production chain are expenses for machines and workers’ salaries in the textile mills.
The calculation will vary with the wages in the countries where the cotton is being grown, currency, retail price in Norway, and so forth. This calculation still gives a good indication as to how small the consequences of even a doubling the pickers’ wages many times would be: it would have an imperceptible effect on the retail price.
Read also the editorial: Half-hearted ethics.