Strategies for Improving Labour Conditions Within the Australian Cotton Value Chain

Project overview

Workers’ rights in the textile and garment industries have come under particular and increasing scrutiny from governments, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), and consumers. Labour concerns in the cotton value chain include poor health and safety, human rights abuses, lack of freedom of association, and forced and child labour. Organisations acting alone have been unable to address these issues, leading to ongoing exploitation of workers. While labour abuses may occur anywhere in the chain, the labour-intensive manufacturing parts of the Australian cotton value chain is an area of particular concern. Australian cotton enjoys a reputation as a clean, green crop grown under decent working conditions, however once the cotton enters global value chains, visibility is lost, and sustainable value is diminished. Practices occurring downstream from Australian cotton growers represent a risk to the industry and to its supply chain partners, including brands and retailers. Positive action by the cotton industry represents an opportunity to demonstrate the industry’s commitment to human rights and sustainability.

In 2019, the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC) commissioned this research project to better understand labour issues along the Australian cotton value chain and to recommend strategies for the industry to explore.

Project Aims

The project followed three phases:

  • Phase 1 – Understanding the issues, risks, stakeholders, and opportunities for intervention
  • Phase 2 – Gathering perspectives of key stakeholders – where and how can risks be reduced?
  • Phase 3 – Applying findings to develop tools and strategies to be used by industry

The overall project aim was to highlight the connection between critical labour conditions in the textile and apparel industry and the cotton grown in Australia, and thereby the opportunity for the Australian cotton industry to support improvements. This opportunity has been framed through seven solution approaches for the industry to consider.

Project methods and outcomes

Report 1 – Critical labour conditions in the Cotton Value Chain

The project undertook extensive documentary research and high-level analysis of labour conditions across key countries relevant to the Australian cotton value chain, identifying risks and leverage points. This analysis is documented in the report titled Critical labour conditions in the Cotton Value Chain. The report provides an at-a-glance labour risk guide that rates the 19 countries which represent the greatest markets or potential markets for Australian cotton. The guide is presented by visual country risk heat maps, specific country profiles, and a summary of labour initiatives.

Report 2: Solutions Approaches to address Downstream Labour Abuses in the Australian Cotton Value Chain

By bringing together perspectives and insights from across the value chain, a series of solution approaches emerged for the Australian cotton industry to consider. The report, ‘Solutions Approaches to address Downstream Labour Abuses in the Australian Cotton Value Chain’, examines the relevance of solution approaches and illustrates them with 22 case studies which highlight industry best practice, current practice, approaches in different industries, and emerging regulatory trends. The seven solution approaches are discussed in the context of the strategic enforcement model (SEM) approach, which focuses on prioritisation due to limited resources; interventions that change behaviours that result in violations, and finding mechanisms that lead to sustainable and ongoing compliance.

The research team has proposed seven solution approaches for the industry’s consideration. The solution approaches were developed and refined through interviews conducted with key industry stakeholders such as merchants, manufacturers, brands and retailers, and NGOs and desktop research on trends emerging in the regulatory and social responsibility spaces.

Download a short summary here.

Download full report here.

Click on a Solution Approach to download individually:

  1. Downstream Due Diligence
  2. Australian Cotton Certification
  3. Transparency and supply chain visibility
  4. Traceability
  5. Reshoring and rightshoring
  6. Strategic partnerships and collaboration between supply chain actors
  7. Collaboration with worker-driven initiatives

Library of Resources

Funding / Grants

  • Cotton Research and Development Corporation (2019 - 2023)

Chief Investigators


Other Team Members

  • Dr Martijn Boersma, CI University of Technology Sydney (UTS)
  • A/Prof Timo Rissanen (UTS)
  • Ms Justine Coneybeer, research assistant, QUT
  • Ms Sarah Bolger, research assistant, UTS
  • Ms. Natalie Sketcher (graphic designer)

Past team members

  • Associate Professor, Sarah Kaine, CI (UTS)
  • Professor Emmanuel Josserand, CI, UTS