Article by Morgan Theakston, Tearfund New Zealand
*Names changed for protection.
It’s a sweltering day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Mohsin* and Helal* are telling us about their jobs at the leather tanneries.
They’ve both spent nearly 40 years chemically treating hides to turn them into leather that, down-the-line, will likely be fashioned into a pair of trendy boots. This is dangerous and low-paid work. They have both seen numerous people die.
Mohsin tells us he works 16-hour shifts and says, “The gasses in the air are strong enough to melt iron and any jewellery we wear. We only have chemicals in our bodies by now”. Helal reveals the tannery owes workers hundreds of thousands of dollars (NZD) of unpaid wages, “Living and food are always a problem. There once was a buyer that cared about us, but since him, companies have only come for business”. He's also seen child labour. “The children do the same dangerous work we do because the company depends on it,” he says.
After reflecting on the industry, Mohsin concludes “The rich are getting richer but the poor are dying”.
Over the past decade, the apparel industry has come under the microscope. Scrutiny from conscious shoppers and non-profits like Tearfund has exposed its dark underbelly of poverty and exploitation. But when it comes to our shoes, there is far less research, little public pressure on companies and a severe lack of transparency. We wanted answers, so we’ve focused on footwear for our annual research into the fashion industry.
Tearfund, in collaboration with Baptist World Aid, researched 25 footwear companies representing more than 90 brands and measured their level of disclosure on human rights and environmental policies and practices in their supply chain. We’ve scored brands out of 100 based on their performance in our 46-question survey that covers 18 indicators of ethical practice. Of all the brands included this year, six are Kiwi brandsi.
There’s no sugar-coating it; this year’s scores for Kiwi shoe companies are low. Popular brands Hannahs and Number 1 Shoes scored 0/100, while Mi Piaci, Merchant 1948 and Deuce scored 12.82/100. We’ve pressured the clothing industry for years and have seen progress. With these scores, it seems shoe companies have barely begun adopting the best practices that we’ve come to expect in the apparel industry. We hope this research becomes a catalyst for meaningful change in the New Zealand footwear industry.