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The Human Cost of Migrant Workers in the Outdoor Industry


[Patagonia posted the following report on their blog today. For another view, see the article by The Atlantic, All Your Clothes are Made with Exploited Labor. Alpinist will be looking into this issue more deeply in the weeks ahead and putting together our own independent report–Alpinist Staff.]

The Unacceptably High Cost of Labor–How a deeper dive into our supply chain led to a new Migrant Worker Standard

Imagine paying $7,000 to get a job. That’s what some labor brokers charge migrant workers in Asian countries to place them in factory work in Taiwan, where many factory jobs go wanting these days. The practice is considered an acceptable part of doing business, though brokers regularly charge above legal limits. Transportation, work visas and other essentials are included. But paying that kind of money for a factory job is an almost impossible burden for workers already struggling to make a living.

It creates a form of indentured servitude that could also qualify, less politely, as modern-day slavery. And it’s been happening in our own supply chain.

Patagonia buys fabrics and other materials from factories in Taiwan that rely on labor brokers. We’re proud of the high standards to which we hold our factories, but we just didn’t know these issues existed until our social responsibility audits in 2011 revealed some red flags. Partnering with Verite–an NGO dedicated to ensuring people around the world work under safe, fair and legal conditions–we conducted in-depth migrant worker assessments with four of our suppliers in Taiwan.

The results startled us. We learned that it can take a worker as many as two years to repay a labor broker, and that most labor contracts last only three years before the worker has to return home and the process (and fees) begin again. It became clear to us that we needed to make significant changes–and to help alert others to both the problem and the need for change.

We set out to develop a new standard, institute changes in our supply chain, repay current workers, and share our recommended standards with other companies that want to eradicate similar practices by their suppliers.

Working with Verite, we first developed a comprehensive migrant worker standard for our factories that covered every aspect of employment, including pre-hiring interactions, labor contracts, wages and fees, retention of passports, living and working conditions, grievance procedures and repatriation.

Then, in December 2014, we hosted a forum for our Taiwanese suppliers to explain the new standard that, among many things, requires them to stop charging fees to foreign workers hired on or after June 1, 2015. They can either pay the fees themselves or hire workers directly without the use of labor brokers.

We also mandated that they repay currently employed workers, who were hired before June 1, all fees that exceeded the legal amount.

Our factory partners listened with interest and asked many questions. They understand our values and our belief in the cost of doing business responsibly. We are committed to partnering with them to eliminate human rights issues in our supply chain and we were very pleased to see their strong overall commitment to doing right by their workers.

Hoping to inspire further-reaching change (and continue to educate ourselves), staff from Patagonia’s social and environmental responsibility department also met with Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor Workforce Development Agency. We had a productive dialogue about ways to improve the system for all companies in Taiwan. As a result, representatives from the agency provided training to our suppliers on the practice of direct hiring.

And, because this form of human trafficking is not confined to the island of Taiwan, we have applied our migrant worker standard to our entire supply chain. We’ve also made the standard publicly available to any company that would like to adopt it.


In January, we received a call from the White House, inviting Patagonia’s Chief Operating Officer Doug Freeman and Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility Cara Chacon (pictured above) to present our work at the White House Forum on Combating Human Trafficking in Supply Chains led by Secretary of State John Kerry. We, along with leaders from Walmart, HP and SAP Cloud, were asked to discuss our work and best practices on the issue.

“We were honored to have the opportunity to share our plan and progress,” Cara said. “Though the work is challenging, it’s not impossible. For the sake of workers, we hope other companies will recognize that and move ahead with their own efforts.”