In September the Brotherhood of St Laurence released a report called Ethical Threads which raises some important points about the clothes Australians wear. An increasing portion of our clothing budget heads off-shore to companies with operations in countries like China. Clothing is the biggest single category of goods Australians import from China, accounting for $3.6 billion in sales in 2005-06.

Australia currently has 46,000 jobs in the textile, clothing and footwear sector, a reduction of 63% since 1984. Over the same period the Chinese clothing sector has grown rapidly and now employs millions of workers. Amnesty International and other organisations have documented that for many of them, labour rights we take for granted are not available. We have seen accounts of forced labour, where people work 15 hours a day or more, seven days a week, without breaks and without any compensation. China has a long way to go to fulfill Article 43 of its Constitution which states simply that Working people in the People's Republic of China have the right to rest.

Since the 1980s the "vertically integrated" model where a clothing manufacturer owns and controls every part of the process has typically been replaced by complex arrangements involving multiple levels of outsourcing of piece work. As a result, as documented by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, companies in this industry routinely claim they are unaware of how their products are manufactured, and take no responsibility for workers conditions.

Consumers are the beneficiaries of low prices on clothing made in China, and theres nothing wrong in principle with consumers getting a good deal. But the old adage says, "if it looks too good to be true, it probably is", for the clothing on our backs may be made by Chinese workers toiling under oppressive conditions.

What can we do everyday to learn more about what we buy? We can ask clothing retailers and importers if they offer any independent verification of working conditions in their supply chain. We can ask them to publish the results of such independent audits, and commit to continuous improvements in results. And we can ask them to join reputable third-party rating schemes such as the Corporate Responsibility Index to realise their commitment to being a good corporate citizen.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence found that Australian clothing sector has been slow to adopt both mandatory and voluntary mechanisms to protect workers conditions - both for Australian workers and those overseas. Some companies reportedly believe there is no business case for ethics guidelines, suggesting most consumers didn't care how clothing is manufactured. Amnesty International suggests many Australian citizens would disagree: we are willing to look behind the label.