The Fashion world can be so exciting, and we love bringing you the most innovative new materials, processes, and ideas. However, we also need to remember that the Fashion world has an extremely dark side. We have covered the many types of pollution, but what we are talking about today is the impact on the people in the supply chain.
This article contains strong wording around subjects including modern day slavery, abuse, and rape, which are part of the reality of our industry. Change is happening as we write this, and as always, we will list some positive actions towards the end, however there is still a long way to go.
FORCED LABOUR AND MODERN DAY SLAVERY
Forced labour is work that is performed involuntarily and under menace. Persons are forced to work through intimidation, or by more subtle means such as debt, retention of identity papers, or threats of denunciation to authorities. All practices that fall under modern forced labour and contrary to human dignity can be considered modern day slavery.
According to a paper recently released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 28 million people were in forced labour in 2021 globally. The saddest news is that the number of people in modern slavery has risen significantly in the last five years: 10 million more people were in modern slavery in 2021 compared to 2016. Women and children remain disproportionately vulnerable, and modern slavery occurs in almost every country and culture in the world, and most of it in the private sector.
Myanmar case study
The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an organisation that tracks over 10,000 companies, and helps the vulnerable eradicate abuse. They have been monitoring the significant increase in labour and human rights abuses of garment workers across Myanmar since the military takeover in February 2021. The numbers are shocking: 100 cases of labour and human rights abuse perpetrated against at least 60,800 garment workers, revealing widespread and systemic abuse of garment workers in international brands’ supply chains. These workers are employed at 70 factories producing for at least 32 global fashion brands and retailers, including Adidas, C&A, Inditex (Zara & Bershka), and Primark, to name a few.
Forced labour is different from exploitative working conditions, as that covers issues such as unfair pay, health and safety, working hours, rather than restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement, withholding of wages or identity documents, physical or sexual violence, and threats.
A major issue is that millions of garment workers do not earn a living wage. Good Clothes, Fair Pay is a campaign demanding living wage legislation across the garment, textile and footwear sector. You can learn a lot about living wages through their FAQ.
European Case Studies
There are countries that are at higher risks of human rights abuses and unfair treatment of workers, however it is wrong to think that by simply producing in western countries employees will be treated correctly. There have been cases in the UK of staff that were denied their correct salary and holiday pay, through a job agency that supplies warehouse workers to fast fashion and high street brands.
Just last week, in Italy, a factory was found where Chinese staff were kept in unsafe conditions, working 7 days a week, 15 hours per day. The “made in Italy” logo is unfortunately used to avoid audits and checks, but it doesn’t mean that the staff are treated fairly.
This subject is the darkest of all. Fashion is seen as not just functional clothing, but also a form of self-expression, fun, and art. No-one should ever suffer such horrible acts for Fashion. The link lies in the current design of the supply chain.
Shiny brands with large corporate offices in rich countries spend a lot of time and effort in marketing to ensure that the volume of sales keeps increasing. This means that the money available for the materials and manual work is limited, and done in countries where labour is as cheap as possible. Brands can have hundreds of suppliers, making it difficult to have strong relationships with each one, carry out audits, and ensure high standards. Company owners in the supply chain have to meet the required deadlines and low prices, employ large amounts of vulnerable people, mostly women, who have to take care of their families and therefore would do anything to keep their jobs, and work under extremely stressful conditions. This environment puts managers in powerful positions to take advantage of their employees.
Another situation in which sexual exploitation is linked to Fashion is where a large amount of employees are fired, for causes such as the Covid-19 outbreak, and the only way left for them to make money is to turn to sex work.
Haiti case study
One article by the Guardian explains that in recent years, Haiti, which is known for being an extremely poor country, has promoted itself as a cheap location for US clothing brands looking for low-cost suppliers, with the benefit of a 2006 legislation that allows duty-free entry. About 60,000 Haitians work in 41 garment factories, manufacturing clothes for more than 60 American companies. Unions are fighting for an increase in the minimum daily wage from 500 to 1,500 gourdes ($5-15), and activists say conditions at the factories are terrible, with non-existent labour rights and where sexual abuse is common.
The words of one victim are terrifying. Speaking about her experience with her boss after having worked there for less than a month: “He told me that if I didn’t agree to sex with him, he was going to pull me out of the line" “The pay is so low that it puts women in situations where they have to accept forced sex in order to pay their rent.” “I told him to leave me alone, and because of that I was suspended for three days,” she says. “Even now, he is harassing me. He still wants to have sex.”
Another anonymous employee explains “If you don’t accept to have sex with the manager, your application will be rejected. You must oblige or you won’t have a job, and to get a promotion, you must have sex with your supervisor.”
Another chilling case of sexual exploitation is the one of Jeyasre Kathiravel, which ended with her murder. Kathiravel considered herself lucky to have a job at Natchi Apparels, a local factory making clothes for H&M and other international brands, where she worked long days, and deprived herself of sleep to study at night. Her supervisor had been harassing her for months, insisting for her to have sex with him, however she couldn’t get support from anyone, as he was too powerful for anyone else to act. If she spoke up, she would have lost her job, and she was scared that he would harass her family. On 1 January 2021, she failed to return home from work, and four days later her body was found outside her village.
Independent organisations have looked into the cause, and found out that the supervisor was known to be a sexual predator, and more shockingly, that Kathiravel was not the first garment worker to have been murdered at Natchi. No one should ever die for fashion.
“The sexual harassment the women are facing in the garment industry is directly linked to their desperation to keep their jobs at all costs,” says Thivya Rakini, president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU). TTCU is investigating 29 other cases where women have died unnatural deaths while working in garment factories supplying brands sold in the UK.
WHAT CAN BRANDS DO?
The suppliers listed above must take the responsibility over their actions, and ensure that this toxic environment is not allowed. However, by demanding shorter turnaround times and lower prices from suppliers, brands play their role in making it difficult for factory owners to adhere to labour laws and standards. The current model of Fashion needs to be changed, with prices that reflect the amount of time, effort, and materials required to make garments. Additionally, the constant time pressure in the industry should be removed, by having fewer collections of lower volumes.
In the above case, H&M has cancelled all its orders at Natchi, and is working with local organisations to set up programmes and systems to avoid such events to be repeated, however, systems should have been put in place before multiple women lost their lives.
The Fair Wear foundation has developed a set of recommendations for brands to reduce sexual harassment in the Indian garment industry, which include:
Set up accountability mechanisms to ensure adherence to legislation that addresses sexual harassment.
Leverage influence to make reduction of violence and sexual harassment a priority.
Ensure a safe reporting environment for sexual harassment complaints.
Ensure functional Internal Committees are operating at supplier factories.
Support targeted efforts to raise awareness of the Act and ensure its implementation to reduce sexual harassment.
Train factory management and supervisors to prevent and address violence in the workplace.
Ensure workers are aware of, and can enact, their rights in relation to sexual harassment.
These horror stories can be difficult to read, however, more people should be aware of them, as it might make them think twice before buying extremely cheap clothes. Please do spread the word about the gravity of the situation, and as always, shop responsibly.