There were over 22 billion pairs of shoes produced in the world in 2013. Behind our shoes, especially leather shoes, there can be human right violations or harming of the environment in many places along the supp
ly chain. Footwear is a labour intensive product involving a considerable amount of manual low-skilled work. Today, 87% of shoes are made in Asia, with China as the main producer – producing almost 2 out of 3 of every pair of shoes sold in the world. When it comes to leather shoes, over 40% are made n China, followed by Italy (7%), Mexico (6%), Brazil (4%), and India (4%); while almost half of all the leather produced is made in Asia and the overwhelming majority is made in impoverished countries. Globally, the top 5 producers for leather are China (18%), Italy (10%), Republic of Korea (7%), India (7%), Russia (6%), and Brazil (6%).
Right to Living Wage
One of the biggest problems in many shoe manufacturing countries, especially in Asia, is low wages. Even if the workers are paid accordingly to the legal minimum wage, it still might not be enough for them to live on. For example, the minimum wage in China is only about half of what would be needed for a decent living and in Bangladesh only a fifth. A living wage (further info: https://cleanclothes.org/livingwage), is a human right that is often not materialized in the shoe production countries in Asia. Low wages often also lead to illegal level of overtime.
In shoe production, a general fact occurs: the monthly wage of a worker is approximately as high as the final selling price of one single pair of the shoes he/she manufactures. This is because shoe workers usually get a very little fraction of the price the consumer pays at the shop. For example, from a 120 Euro shoe produced in Indonesia, the workers get the smallest portion only 2,5 Euros, a little over 2% of the retail price, while most of the value of the shoe goes to the brand and the retailer.
The footwear industry subcontracts many activities as piecework to the informal sector. Home-based work is done most often by women in or near their own homes for a cash income, at the same time as they take care of children and other relatives or do agricultural work. Home-based work is a way for employers to reduce costs: wages are low and often based on piecework, employers pay no social premiums, and overhead costs are lower because homeworkers pay their own rent, electricity, machines, and maintenance costs. Homeworkers have no guarantee at all of employment and if their employers have no orders, they do not have to pay the staff or begin a dismissal procedure.
Low piecework prices are seen as a factor in the continuing existence of child labour in home-based work. Home workers on their own produce 10 to 15 pairs of shoes a day, dependent upon the type of shoe, but production per family can increase significantly if they involve children in it.
Right to Safe Working Conditions
One of the riskiest processes of leather production is the tanning phase – a process that turns animal skin into leather that can be used, for example, in shoes. One of the most problematic chemicals used in tanning is chromium. Chromium III is often used, which can, when the tanning process is not well controlled, oxidize to chromium IV (hexavalent chromium), which is highly toxic to the people and the environment. About 80-90% of leather is tanned using chromium, since chromium tanned leather is usually significantly cheaper than vegetable tanned leather.
In tanneries, many workers work without protection or other adequate safety measures when they manipulate chemicals and hides saturated in them. As a result, they often suffer from many different illness and injuries. All hexavalent chromium compounds are considered carcinogenic to workers. The risk of developing cancer increases with the amount of hexavalent chromium inhaled and the length of time the worker us exposed. At the same time, direct eye contact with chromic acid or chromate dusts can cause permanent eye damage. Hexavalent chromium can also irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. Some employees become allergic to hexavalent chromium so that inhaling the chromate compounds can cause asthma symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath. Also, prolonged skin contact can result in dermatitis and skin ulcers. Some workers develop an allergic sensitization to chromium and contact with even small amounts can cause a serious skin rash.
Child labour is also found in tanneries, where children are involved in this dangerous work. Most children work for tanneries which lack well-made machines and protective devices. Numbers of investigation show that most child labour takes place in the informal tanning sector and the less visible workplaces, where inspections are very uncommon. In addition, tanning can pollute air, soil, and water during the treatment process, especially in the discharge of polluted wastewater and scraps with toxic chemicals into the environment. This can make the people living in the surrounding areas of tanneries sick.
Health issues in shoe production factories are often due to the usage of toxic glue and cuts as well as to the contamination of breathing air with toxic from the tanned leather. At the same time, many workers can have problems with damaged back and eyesight, and very often poor social care is not allowing them for regular health check.
Right to Safe Products and Transparency in the Shoe Supply Chain
The global shoe supply chain suffers from well-known and widespread problems with poverty wages, poor working condition, and use of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Still there is only little actual transparency. In practice, it is virtually impossible to know exactly where a given pair of shoes have been produced and under which conditions for workers and the environment. This lack of transparency makes it difficult to specific producers and brands accountable, allowing them to claim that the problems are not really in their part of the supply chain. As a consequence, the appalling conditions are not being sufficiently addressed, while workers and the environment continue to suffer. At the other side, wearing leather goods containing chromium VI can cause irritant and allergic dermatitis to the customers as Chromium VI is one of the most common skin sensitizers.
The lack of transparency contradicts the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection that states the consumer’s right to be informed about the product they buy. Information about the origin and composition of shoes is essential to:
The Change Your Shoes Project is supported by the European Commission, through DG Development and Co-operation – EuropeAid. The contents of this website are the sole responsibility of the Trade Union Rights Centre and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or the European Commission.
Trade Union Rights Centre is a partner in the Change Your Shoes project, not the leading organization. The leading organization in this project is Südwind Agentur – Austria.