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Target and Kmart sell $2 school uniforms, but at what cost?

Major Australian retailers Kmart and Target have come under fire for selling $2 school uniforms while factory workers are paid below levels that can cover basic living expenses.

The $2 polo shirts that are the focus of Target's national "Back to School" campaign are produced in Bangladeshi factories where wages can be as low as $97 a month.

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Target, Kmart under fire for $2 school uniforms

Major Australian retailers face criticism over extremely cheap school uniforms manufactured in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is as low as $97 a month.

This national minimum wage is up to 45 per cent below the "living wage" that allows workers to pay for basic food, water, shelter, clothing, and transport, according to Oxfam and international workers unions.

Rival retailer Kmart is also selling $5 button-up school shirts from factories in Bangladesh, while its $2 polos are made in China.

In store: Target's $2 uniforms.
In store: Target's $2 uniforms. 

The retail cost of the polos is less than the wholesale amount paid by Best and Less, which was slammed in a 2015 Oxfam report for its transparency on factory conditions.

The founder of ethical clothing brand, Etiko, Nick Savidis, said he was "flabbergasted" by the pricing.

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"I don't know how they could do that without ripping someone off," he said. "It's not just the supply chain. It's where the fabrics are dyed and woven, where the cotton has grown. I have no idea how they could do it at that price, not to mention the cost of shipping it to Australia."

Target would not comment on how they produced the shirts in Bangladeshi factories at such a low cost but said that it was "working towards," paying factory employees a living wage.

Forhad Mia and his wife Raifa who worked for $65 a month in a factory used by Kmart in 2013. They said their salaries ...
Forhad Mia and his wife Raifa who worked for $65 a month in a factory used by Kmart in 2013. They said their salaries were too low to live on.  Photo: Ben Doherty

A Kmart spokeswoman said that Kmart had volume agreements that allowed them to "provide prices as low as ethically possible for our customers without compromise to our suppliers and their workers."

The price war comes three years after Bangladesh's garment industry was rocked by the deaths of 1127 workers during the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.

Rescue workers and volunteers search by hand for victims amongst the debris of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in ...
Rescue workers and volunteers search by hand for victims amongst the debris of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 26, 2013.  Photo: Jeff Holt

A lack of fire escapes, poor safety standards and allegations of owners forcing workers back inside to work as the factory began to crumble damaged the reputation of the country's largest industry, which continued to boom by 14 per cent last year. Garments make up 80 per cent of the nation's exports and have lifted millions of workers out of poverty.

Following the Rana Plaza disaster, Target and Kmart were two of the first companies sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

There are an estimated 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh, employing more than four million people. Bangladeshi wages ...
There are an estimated 5000 garment factories in Bangladesh, employing more than four million people. Bangladeshi wages are some of the lowest in the world.  Photo: Ben Doherty

Discount retailer, Best and Less, who failed to sign the accord, is also selling back to school shirts made in Bangladesh for three times the price of its competitors.

A 2015 report from Oxfam that found the company had "made the least progress," since the Rana Plaza collapse by having an ethical sourcing code that fell short of the bar set by many other brands. It failed to name factory locations and identify how workers safety is monitored after it signed the less rigorous Alliance agreement.

Target's $2 back to school promotion.
Target's $2 back to school promotion. Photo: Target

"All of our polos are produced in one factory which is fully accredited with current certification which means all workers are paid a living wage and work freely of their own accord," a Best and Less spokeswoman said, before declining to name the actual factory in which they were produced.

Oxfam's manager of finance, Joy Kyriacou, said that while conditions had vastly improved under the "ground-breaking" accord, with Target and Kmart as key players, the garment sector's mostly female workforce where still working in precarious situations with up to 12-hour days and safety procedures nowhere near international standards. "There are still a lot of dodgy practices," she said.

Kmart's $2 back to school promotion
Kmart's $2 back to school promotion  Photo: Kmart

"The weekly minimum wage is less than what many Australian's are paid an hour. We would like to see Australian companies move towards paying a decent wage," she said.

Ms Kyriacou said she could not comment on the specific factories from which the shirts were sourced from.

Target's general manager of corporate affairs, Kristene Reynolds, declined to name the factory from which the $2 polos were sourced from, but said the company was "proud of its ethical sourcing."

"Supply chain transparency is key to improving our responsibility," she said.

The company's ethical sourcing manager, Carly Richards, said they had been working with the supplier of the $2 uniforms since 2011 and the factory did not give Target any cause for concern.

"We do not put price before factory worker welfare," she said. "We measure factories against our code of conduct and undertake regular announced and unannounced audits."

She said Target was working with aid organisations to pay a living wage and developing a worker grievance program, where factory employees will be able to lodge complaints with Target's head office.

Kmart's general manager of sustainability, Tracie Walker, also declined to name the factory from where the shirts were sourced but said that the company regularly inspected both Chinese and Bangladeshi factories and that company was working towards a living wage agreement.

Etiko founder Nick Savidis said that the popularity of the $2 uniforms was ironic.

"There isn't one school that doesn't talk about globalisation or have teachers that talk about social justice and then they go and buy the cheapest school uniform they can," he said.

"What has been done is the absolute minimum, no major fashion retailers are paying above a living wage. Ultimately consumers have to be held accountable. It doesn't take too much to work out how cheap fashion is created."

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