The campaign makes, on paper, an excellent argument in saying that it is practically impossible for an Indian family to live decently on a wage of less than 7,000 rupees a month – the equivalent, at Indian prices, of $475. It goes on to argue that the equivalent, in local prices, should be the minimum wage all Asian garment workers receive for a normal working week, and that normal hours should never exceed 48.
The campaign has attracted substantial attention: its launch in Delhi is known to have been attended at least by the world's second-largest clothing specialist retailer (Gap), the world's third largest retailer of any sort (Tesco) and Primark – possibly the English-speaking world's most frequent butt of criticisms over garment working standards.
Before pointing out some flaws in the argument, though, let's look at the argument's strengths.
It sets clear criteria for how a minimum wage should be calculated.
It links that wage to defined hours
It works out – at least for India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Indonesia – what that means for wages in local currency, in autumn 2009.
In doing that work, and setting criteria most people would accept, it gives a number that retailers and brands who express concern about living wages can use in their factory assessments. Since low wages are virtually universal in our industry (whereas more emotive issues, like child labour or physical abuse are not) it focuses attention on what really matters, rather than occasional headline-grabbing lapses from standards few would disagree with.
The question is, though: does the campaign seriously try to address the problem?
All campaigns have to start somewhere, and there's nothing wrong with AFW starting in India, and from an Indian perspective. But apart from some technical questions about calculations, the campaign seems to have started with three fundamental flaws.
First, it's not clear who's supporting it. Although AFW claims wide support throughout Asia, and says it "brings together a wide range of labour organisations from India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand", it doesn't actually name anyone in China or Cambodia giving it any support. Nor in Vietnam or Laos. Clearly, getting support in China is tough: but it doesn't help to claim you've got it if you haven't – and support from ethical trading advocates in Hong Kong is not remotely the same thing as support from real workers in mainland China. The campaign claims support from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand too – but, try as we might, we can't find any of the "global launch events" AFW promised happening in any of these countries
Second, it exaggerates the importance of Asia in the apparel industry. Clothing manufacture has been moving to Asia for the past ten years because it's cheap. It's simply wrong (and wrong-headed) to claim, as AWF does, that this process is irreversible. Factories in Eastern Europe, Central America, Africa and around the Mediterranean are still debating whether or not to close in the teeth of Asian competition. Even the discussion of raising wages in Bangladesh above those in Romania or Nicaragua (and almost infinitely above those in Lesotho or Haiti) will encourage those factories to stay open: actually pushing Bangladeshi wages up sixfold (as AWF proposes) will guarantee they stay open, undercutting Asians, for a very long time.
Third, it looks to have been devised by someone determined to destroy the garment industry in Bangladesh – or at any rate wanting India to grow faster than other Asian countries. AFW proposes a six-fold increase in Bangladeshi wages. That's TEN TIMES the growth it proposes for Indians. The campaign is pitching for a 138% increase in Chinese minimum wages, a 64% increase in India, a 92% increase in Indonesia, a 231% increase in Sri Lanka and a 73% increase in Thailand.
It may well be that Indian garment workers are paid less badly than those elsewhere in Asia. But headquartering in India a programme apparently designed to reduce India's competitive disadvantage – and staging its launch there too - implies at the very least a sloppiness among the campaign's Indian organisers and a lack of interest in public reaction.
Indeed AFW's most fundamental weakness is its complete misunderstanding of Bangladesh. AFW seriously argues the world apparel industry is dominated by China and India. Quite untrue: India, for all sorts of reasons, trails a long way behind in this industry these days. Prices are ultimately set in Bangladesh, which is in effect the world's lowest-cost producer. Bangladesh is cheap because wages are low: its infrastructure, climate of institutional corruption and inefficient fabric industry means non-labour costs in Bangladesh are higher than elsewhere in Asia. Bluntly: many Bangladeshi garment workers owe their livelihood to their rotten wages.
So, as far as AFW is concerned, there are two broad possibilities:
Either: Follow AFW proposals. But if you increase Bangladeshi wages sixfold without restructuring a lot of other things, its garment industry (well over half the country's exports) risks destruction. Destroy Bangladesh's garment industry and you put 2.5 million workers (over half the country's industrial work force) out of a job. Unlike – well, India – Bangladesh just doesn't have anywhere else for those 2.5 million to work. Of course they'd rather earn more than the 1668 taka a month those on minimum wage get. But most prefer those 1668 taka to the zero income they'd have without a garment industry.
AFW argues that retailers could "easily" just fund wage increases out of their "vast" profits. Why? If wages grow sixfold, Bangladeshi prices will go up, and no responsible retailer will deprive Romanians or Haitians of jobs for the dubious privilege of buying more expensively from Bangladesh
OR Ignore Bangladesh. Hike India's wages by 64% and more jobs will migrate to Bangladesh.
Maybe there's a way for AFW to revise its proposals to make them less damaging to Bangladesh, and maybe it can find a way to get real support for its programme in Vietnam and China (without which, the campaign is always going to have limited success). But neither of those is going to happen overnight – and maybe not even in many of our lifetimes.
What the campaign almost certainly WILL achieve, though, is better, more informed discussion about the practicalities of a living wage – and probably switch activist attention onto this from emotive campaigns about isolated bad factories. Inevitably, retailers will place more pressure on Bangladeshi factories for higher wages than on those in Guangdong or Shanghai (where the wages workers actually get, after bonuses and the like, aren't that different from the AWF target). And, with luck, the pressure from retailers will force Bangladeshis to strip out the unproductive costs (like bribing Customs officials to get goods processed the same year they arrive) of manufacturing in Bangladesh, and switch the money to paying better wages for better workmanship.
The world will probably be a better place as a result of AWF's campaign. But it's unlikely to improve the lot of Asia's poorest workers very quickly