First published in Huffington Post, December 2015
Shoe production is an immense global industry, with over 24 billion pairs of shoes produced last year alone, which equates to three pairs for every single person living. With an industry on this scale you would be mistaken for thinking there are regulations in place that protect the workers making all these shoes, that ensure a living wage is paid and that there is transparency which allows us to trace shoes from the store back to the factories or homes in which they were made.
However, the real picture of the shoe industry is one where workers, the vast majority women, work long hours for poverty pay, in unsafe conditions, using dangerous chemicals without the proper protection or processes, sexual harassment is a daily occurrence, illegal levels of overtime are forced, and their trade union rights are restricted so they don't even have access to demanding better conditions. If this list sounds remarkably close to the sweatshop conditions of the garment industry it is because the current model of the shoe industry, built as it is on trade and globalization, similarly rests on the shoulders of cheap labour and exploitation.
This is an industry in urgent need of reform. 88% of all shoes produced are made in Asia, and in 2014 the UK bought 523 million pairs of shoes. We are all connected to this industry by the shoes on our feet and yet we have almost no knowledge as to where our shoes are made and under what conditions.
In low-income countries, such as India and Bangladesh, labour regulations are lax, workers safety is ignored and poverty pay is common. Western brands profit from the lack of regulations, using the near total lack of transparency in the industry as a cloak to continue earning high margins off the back of women working in desperate situations.
Shanti is a shoe worker from Southern India. She has spent the majority of her life making shoes, working for 15 years in a factory, and then a further 15 years working from home since having her children. Homeworking allows her, and thousands of other women, to take care of her children without paying additional childcare costs, which would be impossible on her wages.
She hand sews leather uppers into shoes. This is detailed and labour-intensive work. For each pair of shoes she sews she earns the equivalent of just under 10 pence. The maximum she can sew in one day is 10 pairs, earning her £1. Although the cost of living is cheaper, this is simply not enough to cover her basic needs. A kilo of rice alone costs 43 pence.
Homeworkers make 60% of the leather shoes produced in India. There are thousands of women homeworkers making leather shoes in India alone. This is precarious employment, without any extra benefits: no health care insurance, no pension, no guarantee of work the next day.
The very same shoes Shanti sews for £1 a day will eventually end up on UK high streets, sold for upwards of £100 per pair. The vast majority of the profits will go to the brand and the retailer. On average, the workers who make our shoes earn just 2% of the retail price, so for a £125 pair of leather boots just £2.50 goes collectively to the workers. Just £2.50 to those who have dyed the leather using dangerous chemicals that, without the proper procedures and protection in place, turn carcinogenic, to the women who have hand stitched them, to the factory workers that have finished them.
This is an industry in urgent need of regulation. Working with 18 partner organisations across Europe and in China, India and Indonesia, we have launched the Change Your Shoes campaign to raise awareness of these issues with consumers, with brands and with EU policy makers. Ultimately the campaign aims to change the industry, with your help, and to ensure a future where all shoes are made by workers earning a living wage, working in safety and whose human rights are respected and upheld.
Your voice can make a difference.
Download our free Change Your Shoes app today and add your name and your footsteps to our virtual march to Brussels. At the end of the campaign we will take this petition to Brussels to demand EU policy makers prioritise regulating the shoe industry. To push them into introducing laws on transparency that ensure brands selling on European high streets publish their supply chains and take responsibility for all of their workers.
Supporting this campaign will show EU policy makers that UK consumers really do care about who makes our shoes and the conditions under which they are produced. It's time to take the next step in ensuring a fair and sustainable shoe industry that respects workers rights. Please join us.
Ilana Winterstein, Director of Outreach and Communications for Labour Behind the Label