There is a serious lack of transparency in the fashion industry. Girls as young as 13 are forced to work in factories. Just watch ‘DYING FOR FASHION’ and see a firsthand account from a young Bangladeshi girl whose friends perished in a factory fire – all of them being the young age of 13! There are thought to be 21 million people in forced labor in the world. Due to the lack of transparency in the fashion industry, it is hard to say how many there are in fashion and how young?

There is disturbing evidence that forced labor is still present in fashion supply chains.

The repressive governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan continue to force their own citizens to pick cotton under harsh conditions each harvest season. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are in the top ten cotton producers in the world. There are reports too that prison labor in China has been used to produce garments for well-known Western brands.

The Sumangali system, a system in India using forced labor in the cotton mills, bonds young girls to a particular mill for a period of three years. The parents take an advance payment and sign a contract. Girls as young as 13 to 18 years old work 12-hour days. They live in camps associated with that mill and are not able to go home and visit their families. This is bonded child labor. It is widespread in Tamil Nadu where most of these spinning mills operate, according to anti-slavery international campaigner Kate Elsayed-Ali.

About 75% of worker’s worldwide are female. Gender inequality for women creates precarious conditions for women workers in the fashion supply chain. Since the majority of garment workers are female, the effective protection of women’s rights is imperative. Violations are, however, all too common. Common problems are the existence of sexual harassment and discrimination within garment factories. Further, the right to maternity leave is often not granted. Many factories lack adequate nursing facilities or childcare which effectively discriminates against women, making it very difficult for them to continue working once they have children. Given the lack of transparency across global supply chains, it is important to have an understanding of the serious challenges that inequality presents.

Over 60 million people are employed in the fashion industry worldwide, yet in many cases, people are paid less than half the amount considered to be a living wage. For cotton pickers in India, wages are $2 USD/day with no wages in Uzbekistan, where there is forced labor. Perhaps the inequality between the production and retail sections of the garment industry can be best illustrated by the huge disparity in wages between retailers and those who make the clothes.

 In many of the countries where garment production takes place, the legal minimum wages does not amount to a living wage.

Such low wages can lead to issues such as workers having to work extremely long and exhausting hours, low nutrition, bad housing conditions and a bad quality of life. As an example, the wages in Bangladesh are amongst the lowest in the world at $68 USD/ month – this could be regarded as economic exploitation. In Thailand, despite a legal minimum wage being set at $9.80 USD/day, there are numerous cases of garment workers receiving less. Perhaps the lowest living wage is in Ethiopia where a garment worker earns $26 USD/ month, where the minimum monthly living wage is about $110 USD/ month.

The requirement to work very long hours and overtime presents itself as a problem particularly in the production stage. In order to meet the high demands of the orders, workers often find themselves working to excess. In Bangladesh, many garment workers have to work 14-16 hours shifts each day (most often six days per week). In Pakistan, the workers there have to work 10 or more hours a day.

Poor, unsafe working conditions in the fashion supply chains hit the headlines on April 24, 2013 when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed. The building housed five garment factories where 1,138 people died and another 2,500 were injured, making it the fourth largest industrial disasters in history. The victims were mostly young women. THE FASHION REVOLUTION campaign was founded by Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro in response. They created the ‘WHO MADE MY CLOTHES?’ campaign. Fashion Revolution argue that the Rana Plaza disaster was the ‘direct result of the opaque, complex and speedy way in which the industry functions today’. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was set up in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster to improve factory standards through building inspections by structural engineers and safety training. To this day, the vast majority of factories are behind schedule implementing the Accord, a cause for concern as workers continue to be put at risk.

You’ve probably heard of the #PAYUP movement. Due to the coronavirus stay at home order earlier this year, many fashion companies cancelled their orders with the factories. Most factory owners pay up front for the fabrics for these orders and many do not even get paid for at least 30-90 days after shipping. While many fashion company owners collect bonuses and large salaries, millions of garment workers are left unpaid for work they had already completed. With no access to savings, healthcare, or severance, these workers face critical food and housing insecurity. 

To ensure that companies have a sustainable business, they need to know how and where their products are produced, and who works on producing them at every stage of the supply chain. In a globally sourced supply chain, this can be a challenge. It is the responsibility of every company to know this information and we as consumers need to demand that if it is not easily visible on their websites.

Companies like PEOPLE TREE partner with artisans and manufacturers in their production process to help bring them economic independence, gender equality, fair wages, safe working conditions in making sustainable, environmentally friendly clothes.

There is a great opportunity to create value for all workers. Work should be meaningful and whatever the role, there is a chance to create positive change. Everyone can make a difference no matter how small. So, what are we as consumers to do?

We all have a responsibility to act.

Supporting nonprofit organizations are one way to get involved. Also, look for labels such as ‘FAIR TRADE’, which supports worker’s rights.

Examples of consumer action facilitated by NGOs:

  • Cleanclothes.org – improving working conditions in the global garment industry.
  • Stopthetraffik.org – preventing human trafficking.
  • Change.org – demand that companies #PayUp for what they owe to factory workers.
  • Fashionrevolution.org – because we NEED a fashion revolution!

Another thing we can all do is educate ourselves. I highly recommend the following documentaries that highlight the rights of workers in the fashion industry, they are: THE TRUE COST OF FASHION and DYING FOR FASHION. They are by far not the only documentaries out there, but they are a great place to start!

“Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”      ~ Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Xoxo A Sustainable Love 💚

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