2001 ASSLH conference – No quick response: Who is responsible for clothing outwork reform?

Alastair Greig
School of Social Sciences, Australian National University


The Australian clothing industry is often regarded as a relic of a previous industrial age ill-suited to the demands of a more “knowledge-intensive” nation. However, the modern Australian clothing industry combines elements of the so-called “new economy” with elements of highly exploitative work practices associated with outwork. The first part of this paper discusses the scale and scope of outwork in the clothing industry, followed by an examination of the key participants in the chain of clothing production. This highlights the difficulty of assigning “responsibility” for exploitative conditions under circumstances where the employment relationship is ambiguous. The second part assesses a variety of strategies to improve the conditions of outworkers.


The Australian clothing industry is often regarded as a relic of a previous industrial age ill-suited to the demands of a more “knowledge-intensive” nation. As the industry commentator Fraser McEwing recently stated, “more and more people are embracing the view that clothing factories do not fit well with Australia’s tech-filled future”.1 However, the modern Australian clothing industry combines elements of the so-called “new economy”—where image makers, designers, marketers and other symbolic analysts hold sway—with elements of highly exploitative work practices associated with outwork. The first part of this paper discusses the scale and scope of outwork in the clothing industry, followed by an examination of the key participants in the chain of clothing production. This highlights the difficulty of assigning “responsibility” for exploitative conditions under circumstances where the employment relationship is ambiguous. The second part assesses a variety of strategies to improve the conditions of outworkers, an issue recently described by the NSW government as “one of the state’s most serious labour problems”.2

Definitions and statistics: what’s at stake?

While a small number of specialist clothing outworkers are well paid and experience high levels of job satisfaction, the reality for most outworkers is an environment pervaded by OHS problems, overwork, insecurity, intimidation, fear, physical violence, fraud, non-payment, underpayment, withholding of payment and disempowerment.3 While most industry observers agree that outwork conditions need to be improved, there is more disagreement over the definition of an outworker and the scale of the problem. This opening section explains why these controversies are more than detached statistical issues. They are laden with political meaning.

The ambiguity surrounding the definition of outworking provides a useful platform to appreciate the complexities of the clothing supply chain. On the one hand, outworkers exhibit many attributes of employees, including limited autonomy over production methods and work scheduling, an inability to sell services directly to the public and a lack of economic independence from their direct employer.4 This employee status places workers under the protection of State and Federal awards. Over the past fifteen years industrial legislation has been modified to deem outworkers as employees.5

On the other hand, it has been argued that clothing outwork contains attributes of self-employment, rather than employee status. For example, there is evidence that many outworkers usually work for a variety of contractors, that they are generally paid according to the number of garments assembled rather than hours worked and provide capital contributions usually associated with independent contractors, including machinery, energy costs and transportation.

This employment status controversy has crucial implications for the wages and conditions under which outworkers operate, and the chain of responsibility for ensuring that outworkers receive the protections they are entitled to under Australian laws. Despite the deeming of outworkers as employees, commentators have observed that many subcontractors use a variety of ruses in order to mask this relationship as one of self-employment.6

These definitional controversies could be overcome if adequate information was available documenting the scale and scope of outwork. However, outworkers remain “isolated, unseen, unorganised, non-unionised, ignorant of their employment rights and have poor English language skills”.7 This “hidden” nature of outwork allows a range of claims to be made concerning the significance of the practice. While some reports have downplayed the role of outwork, interpreting it as a relic of the past, others have claimed it now dominates clothing production in Australia.

Throughout the 1990s, numerous official reports tended to support the view that outwork was of marginal significance to the evolving, more global, Australian clothing industry. The prevailing view was that the 1989-94 TCF Plan would “shake-out” the local industry. It was predicted that lower tariffs and a more open competitive global market would drive low-quality, low unit cost garments offshore leaving the industry “leaner but meaner” and encourage local manufacturers into high quality niche markets.8 To a certain extent this occurred and the Industry Commission’s report on the TCF industries highlighted a range of success stories in quality upgrading and production efficiency.9 This belief that market forces would transform the local industry into a more capital- and knowledge-intensive sector was supported by an Import Credit Scheme, providing duty credits to value-adding export firms which can be offset against TCF imports. This scheme encouraged manufacturers to relocate their assembly plants in the Asia-Pacific region where labour costs are cheaper.10

This belief in the rationality of the market, supported by government programs, led many analysts and policy makers to consider outwork to be outmoded. For instance, the authority established in 1989 to oversee the Textile Clothing and Footwear (TCF) Plan, the TCF Development Authority, consistently ignored the role of outwork in its annual reports.11

Other official documents, such as the government-commissioned Werner Report, which reviewed the state of the industry in 1994 and the Commonwealth Government’s Future Strategies Report assessing the TCF Plan, barely mentioned outwork.12 This reflected the assumption that “inefficient” local outworkers would be eliminated by more efficient and cheaper imports. The Commonwealth Government’s Action Agenda for the clothing industry devoted only a couple of hundred words to the issue, concluding that: “The real issue facing homeworkers, however, is how they will fare in an industry which is facing increasing competition from low cost imports”.13

However, other commentators have questioned whether this is the real issue and have argued that outwork has been expanding. The “real issue” lies in addressing wage justice for outworkers rather than assuming that they are an economically irrational legacy of past practices. The Collins Report warned that outworking “is now so prevalent that it is not just a characteristic of the industry, the entire industry is structured around it”.14

After initially embracing the TCF Plan, the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) embarked on a national campaign to expose outwork exploitation and in 1995 released a report highlighting outwork abuses.15 The report estimated that there were approximately 330,000 outworkers in Australia. This figure represented individuals whose main income is derived from assembling clothes, as well as others who take in work on an irregular basis and family members and friends assisting outworkers to meet tight deadlines. The TCFUA estimate translates into more than ten outworkers for each registered clothing factory worker.16 Retail and manufacturing associations disputed this figure.17 However, they refuse to specify a more realistic estimate and deny any detailed knowledge of the subcontracting system below the manufacturing level.

Cutting through these statistical controversies, the Collins Report concluded that “the number of outworkers has increased considerably over the last decade”.18 Both this report and the Industry Commission estimated that there are between 50,000 and 330,000 clothing outworkers, illustrating the extent of problem and its hidden nature.19 Even if the most conservative estimates are accepted (such as the Tax Office’s calculation of the equivalent of 20,000 full-time workers) this would represent at least half of the machinists in Australia, considering that the ABS calculate that there are approximately 30,000 clothing workers. This conservative figure adds support to the claim that outwork, far from being an archaic practice, is central to the production of clothing in Australia, or at least certain sections of the clothing industry, such seasonal, quick-turnaround fashion items.20 However, it must be stressed that outwork is not confined to the fashion sector.21

Thus, the controversy over the scale and scope of outwork is more than an objective desire for statistical accuracy. It involves a series of subsidiary questions involving whether the practice is a relic from the past or a vision of the future and whether the practice is a peripheral feature of the industry or a structural pillar.

Factors conducive to outwork

There are a variety of techno-physical, social and economic reasons why outwork as a strategy was a viable response to trade deregulation, intensified competition and globalisation.

First, while most aspects of the clothing supply chain have adopted capital-intensive methods of production, the assembly stage remains highly labour-intensive. The sewing machine remains the principal tool of production and within the means of an individual worker to purchase or lease. When these features are combined with the transportability of the clothing components, the ability of production to be undertaken in dispersed locations, and the fluctuating demand associated with seasonal clothing, then outwork and small-scale production becomes a viable, even attractive, option.22

Second, a variety of social variables allow outwork to proliferate. In many societies sewing is considered a “woman’s task” and the value of the skill is often not fully acknowledged.23 Furthermore, as child-care responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, outwork appears for many to be a solution that allows the worker to meet the “double burden” of domestic and paid labour responsibilities.24 Outwork is a manifestation of the limited options available to certain sections of the population.

Third, clothing outwork in Australia has always relied on an ethnic dimension. It has been estimated that up to 95 per cent of clothing outworkers are NESB women.25 The employment options of these groups are limited by a range of factors, such as: language barriers; unfamiliarity with local labour markets; lack of knowledge of local labour and tax laws, often making them prey to unscrupulous subcontractors; and the non-recognition of skills and qualifications accrued overseas. Recent changes to immigration laws by the Coalition government, withdrawing certain rights to access social security within the first two years of migration, have further narrowed the options available to these groups.26 These characteristics of the labour market disadvantage give force to the claim made by Asian Women at Work that outwork “needs to be addressed as a social issue not just an industrial one”.27

As the following section illustrates, other links along the commodity chain often rely on the exploitation of outworkers in order to increase their profit margins, lower their labour on-costs, avoid regulatory detection and assure numerical workforce flexibility.

The clothing chain of production

While outwork prevails within most sections of the clothing industry, few principal firms have direct contact with outworkers. A complex production chain unites the outworker with the principal.28 This section examines the roles of retailers, manufacturers and subcontracting “middlemen”, highlighting the problem of identifying the parties responsible for outwork. The conceptual use of a chain provides more than a technical map of a sector”s inputs and outputs. A chain is structured by relationships of power and governance.

The argument that retailers exert a high degree of influence along the chain of production is fuelled by a number of concerns. Despite the presence of thousands of small-scale clothing retailers, industry analysts accept that Australia’s clothing retail sector is highly monopolised. The Coles Myer Group and the Woolworths Group dominate the sector, although each group has a range of independent clothing units. This market strength enables the largest clothing retailers to dictate terms and conditions to manufacturing suppliers.29 In addition, retailers have become clothing importers in their own right, directly competing with their manufacturing “partners”. As a consequence, modern large retailers are price-makers, rather than price-takers.

The clothing sector can thus be understood as a “buyer-driven commodity chain”.30 For example, more and more large retailers are adopting inventory control techniques and delivery scheduling—termed Quick Response strategies— forcing suppliers to restructure their manufacturing practices in order to reduce lead times and produce smaller batch runs. It has been argued that these tight scheduling demands force local producers to rely more heavily on outworkers to fulfil orders.31 Many commentators have thus argued that retailers must shoulder part of the responsibility for ensuring wage justice for outworkers.

On the other hand, retailers reject any direct responsibility for outwork, asserting an “arms-length” relationship with the supply chain.32 The Australian Retailers Association (ARA), responding to a recent TCFUA claim that retailers must assume greater responsibility for the supply chain, stated that “the fact of the matter is the problem is in the manufacturing sector”.33

The architects of the TCF Plan anticipated significant industry restructuring, predicting that manufacturers would be forced to exit low unit cost sectors and enter more value-added markets.34 However, offshore assembly and flexible manufacturing were only two options available to local manufacturers. Many adopted the practice of subcontracting in order to externalise costs. Subcontracting the assembly process has numerous advantages for local manufacturers, including: lower labour costs through employing outworkers at below the award and avoiding other award conditions, such as hours of work; avoidance of labour on-costs such as workers compensation, superannuation and payroll tax; avoidance of capital costs such as machinery, energy, rental of premises, distribution and other incidental costs; assurance through low piece rates that workers will only be paid for irregular “productive time”; and rapid turnaround for orders.35

Thus the internal efficiencies envisaged in the TCF Plan did not necessarily materialise. While many manufacturers adopted the rhetoric and the hardware of “quick response” strategies, their “flexible manufacturing systems” relied on more extensive exploitation of outworkers.

Manufacturers have attempted to evade responsibility through drawing attention to the role of retailers, arguing that “the demands made on suppliers by retailers, plus the competition of imports, creates the need to work with outworkers”.36 They have also defended themselves by arguing that the more liberalised global environment has left them with no local alternative but to subcontract to outworkers. Manufacturers unwilling or unable to relocate or subcontract offshore argue that failure to comply with outwork regulations is caused by the complexity, inflexibility and impracticability of the Federal Clothing Award.37 Thus, many manufacturers evade responsibility through blaming retailers or claiming that the maintenance of a local clothing industry requires outwork as a necessary evil.

Other manufacturers and retailers claim to incorporate outwork costs into their prices using the appropriate award. By implication, such firms claim that the failure to comply with awards occurs at the subcontracting stage, either through subcontracting assemblers or the “middlemen” who organise and employ outworkers. These subcontracting arrangements also ensure that principal manufacturers and retailers retain a safe degree of legal distance between their operations and any acts contravening industrial legislation, effectively shielding “retailers and manufacturers from responsibility (and legal liability) for working conditions”.38 At this subcontracting stage, the length of the supply chain acts as a convenient means of evading responsibility through ignorance. Retailers and manufacturers will often state that they are not in a position to verify whether their subcontractors are employing outworkers “off the books”. 39

Regulatory authorities face a range of problems dealing with compliance, including the widespread practice of dealing with outworkers as independent small-business entities, the absence of written contracts of service, the absence of work and time records held by workers due to the irregular nature of their work, the complex ethnic community networks in which outwork predominates and the failure of middlemen to comply with taxation and industrial legislation. These circumstances led the NSW Pay Equity Inquiry to speak of “the veil of secrecy, intimidation and fear that covers the industry of outworkers”.40

This lack of transparency benefits everyone except the outworker. Yet, as Asian Women at Work explain, outworkers often perceive that it is in their best interests to remain hidden:

Currently outworkers gain their security by investing in a good relationship with their employer. Their employer is very important because he/she holds the key as to whether the outworker receives work or not. Cultivating a good relationship with their employer ensures they receive more work, which means more practice, which means greater skills. This in turn leads to more money and greater security. Therefore in the outworker—employer relationship there are good reasons for both sides to hide exploitation. Some outworkers deliberately work for more than one employer in order to give themselves greater power in this relationship, however, this alone does not give them the strength to speak out.41

Ultimately, these circumstances not only lead to the proliferation of illegal practices by middlemen and outworkers, but also the evasion of responsibility further along the supply chain.

Thus far it has been established that the engagement of outworkers in the Australian clothing industry has increased during the past decade, undermining the sentiment that outwork is a historical relic. A number of factors in the economic environment encouraged manufacturers to “downsize” through moving offshore, converting from manufacturing to licencing or subcontracting manufacturing. The Commonwealth government’s TCF restructuring plan, the reduction of protection levels and the growing power of key retailers created this environment. Many manufacturers responded by increasing their flexibility through the use of outworkers. The lack of transparency along the supply chain encourages the evasion of responsibility for addressing the conditions that outworkers experience.

Responses to outwork

This final part of the paper examines five responses to outwork exploitation, including compliance, voluntary codes of industry practice, state-based registration schemes, consumer action and finally, as way of a conclusion, changing work practices. The nature of the supply chain suggests that these responses are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.


All industry participants demand that governments exact award compliance. However, clothing inspectorates remain under-resourced, and even a significant increase in resources would simply attack the symptoms rather the causes of outwork exploitation. In addition, premise inspections and raids are often ineffective, due to the mobility of the offending operations.42

The main dilemma facing compliance agencies is their focus on the least detectable and most elusive links in the chain. As the Collins Report argued: “When considering methods of reducing outworker exploitation…any system devised must have a top down rather than a bottom up approach. That is, it must move from the visible to the invisible and incorporate a greater level of accountability among retailers and manufacturers. For any system to work it must rely on the agreement and proper compliance of the ‘visible’ participants in the process…the retailers and usually the designers/suppliers who own the labels”.43 A corollary to this is that compliance mechanisms tend to target the victims rather than the beneficiaries of the structure of outwork exploitation. For this reason, “the coercive approach has generally not been successful”.44

NSW government initiatives

This compliance problem was recognised more recently by the NSW government’s proposal for a more proactive approach to eliminating outworker exploitation through a scheme run by a dedicated agency to enhance chain transparency and firm responsibility.

As part of its 1999 election campaign, the NSW Labor government announced that it would introduce legislation to stop the exploitation of outworkers. This commitment was an acknowledgement that a more innovative approach was needed, stressing a more collective responsibility for compliance. After extensive consultation with industry participants, the NSW DIR released the details of its proposed “Ethical Clothing Trades Act” in December 1999. The key initiatives involved:

  • a retailers’ registration scheme, recognising the importance of retailers in the management and control of the clothing chain; 
  • a manufacturer/supplier accreditation scheme, which would monitor not only the contractor’s direct employees but also other parties contracted to supply outworker services; 
  •  a system of records production obligations that would enhance transparency; 
  • an Advisory Board representing industry participants, responsible to the Minister; 
  • and a consumer awareness campaign to promote ethical production.

The key to the acceptance of the proposal by community groups and the union movement was their recognition that it transcended existing legislation targeting individual responsibility in the “hidden” sector, and directly addressed the issue of retailer and manufacturer responsibility. Asian Women at Work observed that: “If fully and carefully implemented this strategy will see the end of ‘it’s impossible to comply’ in the clothing industry and ‘low payments are an unfortunate reality’, and a move to responsibility for stopping the exploitation being appropriately shared by all the players in the industry”.45

The NSW proposals place direct responsibility upon the principals who initiate orders:

Where a firm contracts with another entity to supply the clothing goods, the contract will be required to contain a standard clause which obliges each succeeding party in the contract chain to inform the original firm about the number and type of articles (and the price per article) given out to each succeeding party… It will be an offence for retailers and suppliers operating in NSW not to comply with these provisions.46

Retailers, however, have questioned the proposal’s feasibility by denying responsibility for supply chain management and challenged the practicality of the recording process. They also deny that further legislation is necessary, stating that the problem remains enforcing existing legislation. Certain manufacturers and retailers have argued that they cannot guarantee conditions further along the supply chain and that if they were held legally responsible, they would exit the NSW market. This threat reveals another weakness in the proposed NSW “ethical clothing act”—its effectiveness depends on other states implementing similar legislation. In October 2000, the Bracks government in Victoria signalled its intention to improve outworker conditions through the introduction of a Fair Employment Bill in consultation with the NSW government.47

However, if the NSW government accepts this threat of capital flight, it would be forced to abandon the possibility of addressing the exploitation of outworkers. It is this lack of responsibility and accountability that the proposed Strategy attempts to overcome. The excuse of organisational complexity along the supply chain has always been the last refuge for companies intent on maintaining the status quo and avoiding the ethical dilemmas that the NSW government is now addressing.

Homeworkers code of practice

Another criticism levelled at the NSW proposals is that the scheme would add to the regulatory burden facing clothing firms already suffering from greater global exposure and increase their financial burden through additional auditing costs associated with registration, accreditation and preparation of records for inspection. However, by 1998 70 per cent of Australia’s clothing retailers and manufacturers had signed a voluntary Homeworkers Code of Practice that stipulated a preparedness to have their supply chain records examined by the TCFUA.48 The establishment of this voluntary code has set much of the groundwork for the NSW strategy. The commitment by retailers and manufacturers to this Code demonstrates that the complexity of the clothing chain of production can be rendered more transparent and that this complexity should not be used as an excuse to abandon tighter monitoring schemes.

The Homeworkers Code of Practice had its origins in 1994 when the TCFUA launched its National Outwork Information Campaign. The campaign was followed up with a number of voluntary “deeds of cooperation” with well- known large retailers and manufacturers, committing companies to take responsibility for the conditions under which their suppliers operated.

Following this, the union—with the assistance of community groups such as FairWear—began collecting industry signatories for the creation of a broader Homeworkers Code of Practice which would: a) accredit retailers and manufacturers; b) open up signatories records to union inspection; c) provide a list of all contractors used by firms; d) undertake that no work be undertaken by outworkers for less than stipulated by the award; e) accept that outworkers be defined as employees rather than independent subcontractors.49 A national Code of Practice Committee representing a broad range of industry participants is continuing to work on the details of the Code. The Collins Report, the Industry Commission and the NSW government registration and accreditation scheme commended the Code.50

However, a range of concerns has been voiced over the effectiveness and appropriateness of the voluntary Code. The Australian Retailers Association withdrew from negotiations and released its own “Statement of Principles Regarding Supplier Compliance in the Clothing Industry”.51 It re-entered negotiations over the development of a standards manual, but in late 2000 withdrew its support for the document as well as its support for a “No Sweat” label sewn into garments manufactured by Code signatories, arguing that retailers should not be held responsible for the conditions under which garments are manufactured and has repeated its calls for greater policing of existing legislation.

On the other hand, the union movement and its sympathisers regard the Code as a necessary but not sufficient mechanism to improve the conditions of outworkers. Firstly, a voluntary code can only be effective if it receives universal support. Without such support, participating firms are vulnerable to unfair competition from less scrupulous companies prepared to continue exploiting outworkers. Second, by its very nature, a voluntary code, like self- regulation, requires trust that firms report their practices accurately to a monitoring agency. Under the highly competitive circumstances that prevail in the clothing industry, there would be a temptation for firms to reap the public benefits of being associated with the scheme while privately contravening the spirit and the letter of the Code.52

The TCFUA also reminded the Collins Review that “the code by itself is a piece of paper” and that it requires “mechanisms” to ensure its success. A voluntary code could not cover issues such as award conditions, occupational health and safety standards and other industrial matters. These concerns explain why the NSW government considers the Code and its proposed scheme as complementary.53 The combination of industrial legislation, government-supported registration and accreditation schemes and voluntary codes would be necessary to achieve wage justice for outworkers. On March 25, 2001, NSW Premier Bob Carr announced his intention to introduce the Ethical Clothing Act during the Spring 2001 Parliament sitting. He announced that retailers and manufacturers registered within NSW will have one year to sign the Homeworkers Code of Practice, which would appear to alter the “voluntary” nature of the Code and secure it as a plank of the Government’s outwork reform process.54

Consumer action

The measures discussed thus far address legislative, administrative and regulatory reform. However, there is also scope for consumers to apply pressure for “ethical production”.55 Community groups such as FairWear have achieved publicity through a series of ever-more innovative boycott campaigns, storefront demonstrations and other public awareness campaigns.56 These campaigns have been directed against firms that have thus far refused to sign the Homeworkers Code of Practice. However, they also list firms that have entered the agreement on their website and on wallet-sized shopping cards, thus linking “negative” consumer campaigns with “positive” initiatives.

There is growing awareness that any regulatory and legislative changes need to be combined with positive incentives for compliance. In response to the NSW government’s outwork strategy proposal, Asian Women at Work argued that:

If accreditation is to be voluntary the government must make the accreditation so attractive that everyone wants to get it. It is necessary to create an environment where it is good to get accreditation. The strategy must provide strong incentives for suppliers to seek accreditation.57

Modifying consumer behaviour through product labelling is an important part of the Code of Practice campaign and the NSW government proposals. Over the past decade, a range of consumer items have been linked to related social issues and labelling has become an accepted part of the choice consumers can make when purchasing goods.58

The feasibility of an ethical goods market promoted through labelling was tested in a NSW government-commissioned report on consumer attitudes towards outwork exploitation. It found that once women were informed of the issue, 90 per cent “would prefer to purchase a garment labelled as ethically produced if all other factors are equal”.59 However, “all other factors” are not likely to be equal given that non-labelled garments would be more competitive due to the higher level of outworker exploitation. Thus, one outstanding question remains the extent to which consumers are prepared to pay an ethical premium on garments manufactured under award conditions. Critics of legislative and regulatory change have emphasised that retailers and manufacturers would not absorb the costs of ethical sourcing, and that these would be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher rack prices. The result would be a reduction in demand for local “ethical” garments and a tendency for local producers to relocate interstate or offshore. The consequences would leave outworkers with fewer employment options than they currently have.

Others have criticised the labelling scheme on the grounds of the difficulties of determining source. This is a variant of the familiar refrain—the complexity of the chain of production militates against any reform. On the other hand, it merely emphasises the need to reinforce consumer campaigns with strong industry and government legislation precisely because there is a need to enhance consumer confidence that “ethically sourced” goods do not breach the Trade Practices Act.

Conclusion: No quick response

Every major study into the clothing industry over the past decade has devoted attention to the “complexity” of the commodity chain. As this paper has demonstrated, different conclusions can be drawn from this observation, ranging from claims that it undermines any possible reform, to the need for greater transparency. This “complexity” can be also used as an excuse to evade responsibility for improving outworkers’ conditions. Ignorance remains the last refuge for clothing stakeholders evading ethical questions.

Most studies also concur that if there has been a growth in clothing outwork over the past decade, then this has been a result of the competitive pressures placed on firms and their response of more extensive exploitation of labour, principally through outworking. On the other hand, calls for greater (self-)regulation and the pressure of consumer action will force manufacturers and retailers to re-engineer the supply chain to accommodate wage justice for outworkers.

Ironically, the means of accomplishing this have been in circulation for over a decade and, indeed, many retailers and manufacturers loudly proclaim that they are using new production systems to work smarter, network better, improve quality and reduce prices for consumers. These processes are associated with the concept of Quick Response and are designed to shorten lead times, reduce inventories and improve communications between participants along the supply chain.60

The rhetoric of QR abounds with concepts such as quality assurance, measurement, accountability and reliability. These are precisely the standards demanded by community groups and workers organisations attempting to secure wage justice for outworkers. Yet, although retailers and manufacturers are content to use the rhetoric of Quick Response for publicity purposes, they fall back upon the underlying complexity of the chain when it comes to their accountability for outworkers.

Numerous reports provide illustrations of clothing firms restructuring their activities to survive the more open economic conditions of the post-TCF Plan era.61 On the other hand, other benchmarking evidence reveals that most Australian clothing firms remain below “international best practice”.62 A TCFUA spokesperson recently cut across this conflicting evidence, arguing that major retailers and manufacturers had adopted much of the hardware and IT associated with QR, such as EDI, but had failed to reform the inter- and intra-firm work practices associated with international best practice. This failure has been the principal cause of the discrepancy between the original vision of the TCF Plan and the current reality.63 The drivers of the commodity chain sought a quick fix rather than Quick Response, believing that information technology could speed up their commands along the supply chain. However, QR is dependent on opening up channels of trust and understanding between chain participants.

The NSW reform proposal explicitly recognises that re-engineering the supply chain is a key challenge for the future of the clothing industry and that the role of outworkers in the communication network needs to be democratised. In mid-2000, NSW DIR began an Outworker Supply Chain Management Project that brought together all participants of a specific clothing chain to consider intra- and inter-firm work practice changes. Asian Women at Work has already pointed to a number of interesting scenarios that could improve the role of outworkers along the supply chain: the removal of the middleman and closer relations between fashion houses and outworkers; restructuring the role of the middleman as a distributor; better utilisation of outworkers’ skills and efficiency; better communications channels leading to better quality control and better scheduling of orders; greater interaction and community building among outworkers; better opportunities to train outworkers to run cooperatives with the assistance of local councils; greater opportunities to assist outworkers to comply with legislation; and labour adjustment programs targetted at the specific needs of outworkers.64

Ultimately, wage justice for outworkers depends on altering relations at the point of production. There is a need for constant vigilance by community groups to ensure that reform proposals do not merely ease the consciences of consumers and politicians alike while leaving outworkers marginalised, hidden and exploited.

These dangers can be exposed through trying the following mental experiment: If Mitsubishi Motors announced that its operations in Australia were viable only if it reduced its wages for car assembly workers to six dollars an hour, there would a national outcry. The argument that “this wage is better than no wage” would be drowned in a sea of voices defending the Australian ethos of a “fair go” and the company would be attacked as exploitative and ultimately threatening the living conditions of all Australians. While a few hard-nosed economists might evoke the law of supply and demand, most Australians would look towards government to legislate against this massive reduction in wages. Yet, when it comes to clothing outworkers, no such outcry is made about the current realities of their wages and conditions. Has this something to do with the fact that these are principally women workers, recent migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds, and that their work remains hidden?

If the following Vietnamese outworker’s statutory declaration is representative, then outworkers themselves clearly perceive the Australian industrial system to be discriminatory:

 I think the shops and factories must believe outworkers eat less and can live on less than other people can. I don’t want the work we do to go overseas but I don’t think that we should be used to get less money than other workers we all do the same work.65


1 McEwing, F., “Fraserlive”, Ragtrader, 2-15 February, 2001.
2 NSW Department of Industrial Relations (NSW DIR), Behind the Label: The NSW Government Clothing Outwork Strategy: Issues Paper, NSW DIR, 1999, p. 10.
3 Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA), Submission to the Victorian Industrial Relations Task Force, 2000; TCFUA, The Hidden Cost of Fashion: Report on the National Outwork Information Campaign, Sydney, TCFUA, 1995; Chang, S., Seamstress: A Report on Health Issues of Women Workers in the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industries, Working Women’s Health Publication, 2000; Collins Report, Outworkers in the Clothing Industry, Senate Economics Reference Committee, Canberra, Senate Printing Unit, 1996.
4 Industry Commission (IC), The Textiles, Clothing and Footwear Industries: Volume 2, Report No. 59, Melbourne, 1997, p. D1; Collins Report, 1996, op. cit., 7.
5 Weller, S., “Clothing Outwork: Union Strategy, Labour Regulation and Labour Market Restructuring”, Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1999.
6 TCFUA, The Hidden Cost of Fashion: Report on the National Outwork Information Campaign, Sydney, TCFUA, 1995; NSW DIR, 1999, op. cit.; IC, 1997, op. cit.; Asian Women at Work (AwatW), Feedback on Behind the Label: NSW Government Clothing Outwork Strategy, Sydney, 2000.
7 Collins Report, 1996, op. cit., p. 6.
8 Textile Clothing and Footwear Development Authority (TCFDA), State of the Industry Report 1990, Melbourne, AGPS; Mathews, J. & L. Weiss, A Tale of Two Industries: Textiles in Italy and Australia, University of NSW Industrial Relations Working Paper No. 86, Sydney, 1991.
9 IC, 1997, op. cit., Vol. 1, Ch. 1.
10 Weller, S., “International Competitiveness and Export Performance: The Case of Clothing and Textiles”, Journal of Australian Political Economy, No. 46, 2001; Grynberg, R., “Rules of Origin” Issues in Pacific Island Development, Development Issues No. 8, NCDS, Canberra, 1998.
11 Textile, Clothing and Footwear Development Authority, State of the Industry Report 1990, Melbourne, AGPS, 1990.
12 Commonwealth of Australia, Future Strategies for the Textiles, Clothing and Footwear Industries 1996-2000 , Canberra, 1994, p. 16.
13 Department of Industry, Science and Tourism (DIST), Textiles, Clothing Footwear and Leather Industries: Action Agendas, Canberra, DIST, 1999, p. 22.
14 Collins Report, 1996, op. cit., p. xi.
15 TCFUA 1995, op. cit.
16 Ibid; see also Evatt Foundation, Reforming Homework: A Statistical Profile and the NSW Code of Practice, Sydney, NSW Minister for Public Works and Services, 1998.
17 IC, 1997, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. D11-12.
18 Collins Report 1996, op. cit., p. 25.
19 IC, 1997, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 122.
20 NSW DIR, 1999, op. cit.; Collins Report, 1996, op. cit., p. xi; IC, 1997, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. D2.
21 Collins Report 1996, op. cit., p. 9; TCFUA, 1995, op. cit.
22 Greig, A.W., “Subcontracting and the future of the Australian Clothing Industry”, Journal of Australian Political Economy, No. 29, May 1992.
23 Allen, S. & C. Wolkowitz, Homeworking: Myths and Realities, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1987.
24 Gannage, C., Double Day, Double Bind: Women Garment Workers, Toronto, The Women’s Press, 1986.
25 IC, 1997, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. D23.
26 Collins Report 1996, op. cit., p. 65-6.
27 Asian Women at Work (AWatW), Feedback on Behind the Label: NSW Government Clothing Outwork Strategy, Sydney, 2000.
28 IC, 1997, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. D3; Collins Report 1996, op. cit., pp. 18-9.
29 Ford, S., “Fighting Exploitation is No Sweat”, TCFOz.com.au, 29 May, 2000; Greig, A.W., “Retailing, Technological Change and the City”, in P.N.Troy ed., Technological Change and the City, Sydney, Federation Press, 1994; Greig, A.W. 1990, “Technological Change and Innovation in the Clothing Industry: The Role of Retailers”, Labour and Industry, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1990.
30 Gereffi, G., “The Organisation of Buyer-Driven Global Commodity Chains: How U.S. Retailers Shape Overseas Production Networks”, in G. Gereffi & M. Korzeniewicz eds, Commodity Chain and Global Capitalism, Prager, Westport, 1994, pp. 96-99.
31 NSW DIR, 1999, op. cit., p. 21; TCFUA 1995, op. cit.
32 See comments by the Retail Council of Australia in Collins, 1996, op. cit.
33 The Australian, 18/1/01.
34 TCFDA, “Introducing the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Development Authority”, n.d.: McCreadie, S. & A. Booth, “Towards 2000 in the TCF Industries: A Bold Experiment”, in M. Costa et al eds, Australian Industry: What Policy?, Sydney, Pluto Press, 1991.
35 NSW DIR, 1999, op. cit., p. 23.
36 See the Australian Chamber of Manufacturers in IC, 1997, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. D6.
37 Ibid, Vol. 2, p. D17; Collins 1996, op. cit., p. 31.
38 Appelbaum, R. & G. Gereffi, “Power and Profits in the Apparel Commodity Chain”, in E. Bonacich et al eds., in E. Bonacich et al ads., Global Production: The Apparel Industry in the Pacific Rim, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994, p. 48 & 56.
39 Australian Experts Group in Industry Studies (AEGIS), Mapping the Textiles, Clothing, Leather and Footwear Industries Cluster, Melbourne, DISR/AusIndustry, 1999; AwatW, 2000, op. cit.
40 NSW DIR 1999, op. cit., p. 48.
41 AWatW 2000, op. cit.
42 See Scruby in Collins 1996, op. cit., p. 86; NSW DIR 1999, op. cit., p. 2 & p. 50.
43 Collins Report, 1996, op. cit., p. 81.
 44 Ibid.
45 AwatW, 2000, op. cit.
46 NSW DIR 1999, op. cit., p. 58.
47 Ragtrader, “Vic govt submits fair wage bill for outworkers”, 17-30 November, 2000.
48 Tubner, B., Statement to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission Award Simplification Case, Cno. 33994, 1998.
49 See FairWear, “Code of Practice”, http://www.vic.uca.org.au/fairwear/cop.htm, 2000, for full text.
50 Collins Report 1996, op. cit., p. xv; IC, 1997, op. cit., p. 127; NSW DIR, 1999, op. cit., p. 43.
51 See IC 1997, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. D30.
52 See Evatt Foundation, 1998, op. cit., p. 19.
53 NSW DIR, 1999, op. cit., p. 44-5.
54 NSW Government, “NSW government moves to protect clothing workers”, Media Release, 25/3/01.
55 Sutor, K., In Defence of Globalisation, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2000, p. 54.
56 FairWear Campaign, FairWear: Stopping Exploitation of Homebased Outworkers Kit, Sydney, FairWear, 1999.
57 AwatW, 2000, op. cit.
58 See Collins Report, 1996, p. 83-4.
59 Dangar Research Group, Do Consumers Care About Clothing Outwork Exploitation?: A Research Report Prepared for the NSW DIR, Sydney, 1999, p. 25.
60 Kurt Salmon Associates, Quick Response Implementation: Action Steps for Retailers, Manufacturers and Suppliers, Kurt Salmons Associates, 1989; Kurt Salmons Associates, Implementing VICS Technology and Quick Response: Making QR Work in Consumer Products, Kurt salmons Associates, 1989.
61 DIST, Best Practice Program: Textiles, Clothing and Footwear, Melbourne, DIST/AusIndustry, 1997.
62 Arthur Andersen Business Consulting, Textile, Apparel & Footwear Best Practice 2000 Benchmarking Study, Melbourne, DIST, 1997.
63 McCreadie & Booth 1991, op. cit.
64 AwatW, 2000, op. cit.
65 Statutory declaration from Dung Chung, TCFUA, 2000, op. cit., Appendix 7.