For years now, the fashion industry has been plagued by accusations of unfair work practices.
While buyers might love cheap clothes and constantly changing trends, the reality is that these practices come at an astronomical cost to the workers responsible for making the clothes we wear. The drive for low, low prices means that brands cut production costs, which forces garment workers to work long hours for low pay in unsafe working conditions.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the labor issues in the fashion, including how the way we consume fashion drives human rights abuses, and also what’s being done to change the situation for the better.
Why the fashion industry?
Fashion is a highly sophisticated global industry that’s worth an estimated $2.5 trillion . This success can largely be attributed to the ability to rapidly mass manufacture lower quality clothes in countries that have cheap labor.
Major retailers (think: H&M, Zara, ASOS, Gap etc.) can carry thousands of different pieces at a time while still providing new styles for each fashion season: Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter, Pre-Autumn, and Resort. With new lines coming in every few months, retailers know that they will need to sell their old stock cheaply or be able to afford to discard it altogether if it doesn’t shift in the sales.
In order for this model to work, costs must be kept as low as possible. Brands have to cover themselves for cutting their profit margins, and they pass those cuts onto suppliers, who in turn pass them onto workers. This is why many of our clothes are made in countries in the Global South, where labor costs are much lower and there is little legislation in place to protect workers’ rights.
Similarly, this provides a disincentive to produce long-lasting, high-quality clothes. Simply put, lower quality clothes need to be replaced more often, which helps companies shift old stock faster. The expected lifetime of an article of “fast fashion” clothing can be as short as two weeks.
Regular changes to stock also require fast turnarounds for factories. These short production cycles translate to long hours for garment workers, who are regularly forced to work 16–18-hour days to meet deadlines.
Cheap clothing is also part of the problem. If a pair of jeans is selling at $15, which includes transport and raw materials, then retailers need production costs to stay at rock bottom so they can still make a profit. In practice, this leads to constant competition among suppliers vying to offer the best price. If another supplier can do the same work more cheaply, brands will simply take their orders elsewhere. Keeping production costs low means factory owners need to set wages even lower in order to make a profit, and they are usually unwilling to reduce their own profit to invest in healthy and safe working environments.
Budget-friendly brands aren’t the only ones linked with labour issues. Higher-end companies such as Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, and Coach have come under fire too . Even when brands are charging a higher price for their clothes, the lack of transparency in supply chains means that there is little incentive for that extra money to be passed through to garment workers.
Supply chains in the fashion industry are notoriously complicated. Many stages go into making the final garment and it isn’t uncommon for each stage to happen in a different place. Large contracts might also be subcontracted out to several different factories. As a result, fashion companies may not even know that their clothes are being made in any given factory which makes it hard for them to keep an eye on what is happening. Since they don’t employ garment workers directly, fashion retailers have been able to keep labour issues at arm’s length. Taking responsibility for workers’ rights in countries where their clothes are made would open them up to legal and financial liability, so it perhaps isn’t surprising that some brands may choose to ignore the reality on the ground.
What’s really going on?
Standards for fair treatment at work are laid out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which aims to protect workers and create dignified working conditions, however the fashion industry has been accused of multiple breaches of these.
Public awareness over labor issues within the fashion industry has been increasing in recent years, particularly after widely publicized disasters such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013. Nevertheless, oversight into actual conditions within garment factories remains low.
Here are some of the major issues currently facing garment workers:
Fashion brands often talk about ensuring that workers in the factories that make their clothes are paid at least the minimum wage. But there is a big difference between the minimum wage and an actual living wage. In many countries, the minimum wage doesn’t cover the basics required to live. Minimum wage rates are set by governments, who may be concerned by the risk of losing foreign investors if they raise wages too high.
A living wage is the amount a worker would need to earn in a 48-hour week to cover all their basic needs, such as housing, education, food, and medicine. According to figures calculated by the Asia Floor Wage, in some countries, the minimum wage can be as low as a quarter of the living wage . In 2020, the Clean Clothes Campaign and Fashion Checker surveyed 490 workers in 19 different factories. According to their report, none were being paid a living wage .
When a 48-hour working week doesn’t pay the bills, workers often rely on paid overtime to make up the difference. Long hours are the norm in garment factories, where 10-12-hour days are commonplace.
But not all overtime is optional. Or paid.
When deadlines are approaching, workers are often set unrealistic targets at short notice and must stay late to complete the work. Those who complain or refuse to do the additional hours simply lose their jobs. Working such long hours has a knock-on effect on workers’ health, both physically and mentally. The stress of working to tight deadlines with little sleep takes a huge toll on both the body and the mind.
Unsafe working conditions
In 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing at least 1,134 of the garment workers employed there . The disaster brought a global spotlight to the unsafe working conditions in many garment factories.
The Rana Plaza collapse wasn’t the only high-profile tragedy. In 2012, workers at the Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan found themselves trapped in the building when it caught fire. The same happened in another 2012 fire at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Bangladesh. In both cases, the doors to the outside had been locked, leaving workers with no escape route.
These tragedies might have been avoided had proper health and safety procedures been in place. But dangerous buildings aren’t the only risk to workers’ health. Many of the chemicals used in manufacturing and dyeing fabrics are unsafe for human health, but proper protective equipment is often not available. Likewise, crowded, over-heated conditions lead to people fainting regularly.
Use of Child Labour
Although it is declining, the use of child labour to make textiles and garments is still a very real issue. Child labour is illegal in most countries, but the ILO still estimates that 170 million children worldwide are engaged in child labour, many within the fashion supply chain .
While working in garment factories or in harvesting raw materials, such as cotton, children are exposed to the same long hours and unsafe conditions as adult workers. And they are usually paid less too. Children who are forced into work miss out on vital education, which further traps them in low-paid work.
According to a report by SOMO in 2014, 60% of the workers they interviewed had started working at garment factories before the age of 18 .
Use of forced labour
In 2020, headlines around the world featured the shocking extent of forced labour in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. According to reports, the Chinese government has rounded up an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim people into forced labour camps, where they are involved in making textiles and processing cotton for the fashion industry . The programme is officially described as a job training initiative. But evidence has emerged of police surveillance, restrictions on movement, and people being forced to work in factories . Others have been transported to different areas of China to work against their will.
Cotton sourced from the Uyghur region is ubiquitous, with an estimated one in five cotton garments sold around the world containing cotton from the area . A report from The Congressional-Executive Commission on China notes the difficulty of properly auditing cotton from the area – under such restrictive conditions, people cannot speak freely about the working conditions they experience .
The news from China isn’t the first time the fashion industry has been implicated in forced labour. In 2013, The New York Times detailed how workers in Uzbekistan are drafted to pick cotton during the harvest . Labelled as ‘volunteers’, pickers were forced onto buses and housed in dormitories while they picked cotton for the state.
Garment workers in Europe aren’t necessarily treated any better. Fast fashion brand Boohoo came under fire in a 2020 report from Labour Behind the Label, because of conditions in factories in Leicester, UK . Many of the workers in Leicester are from minority ethnic groups and an estimated 33% were born outside the UK. According to the report, there have been numerous allegations of human trafficking and forced labour, as well as illegally low pay and unsafe working conditions.
No right to organise
ILO standards include the right for workers to form unions and take strike action so that they can effectively bargain for better pay and conditions, however the fashion industry actively cracks down on any attempt by garment workers to organise.
Countries such as China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam are major producers of garments – and they are also some of the worst countries for workers to organise in . Restrictive laws prevent workers from forming unions and bargaining for their rights. Workers who do attempt to form a union risk losing their jobs, as does anyone who goes on strike. Violence against union members is not unknown.
The restrictions extend to wider civil action too. In 2021, garment workers in Myanmar joined strikes and protests across the country to object to the military coup and campaign for the right to form unions, however allegations emerged that workers making clothes for Primark had been locked inside factories to prevent them from joining the protests . Others said they had been fired for protesting. The supplier in question, GY Sen, denies the accusations.
Loss of earnings
In March 2020, retailers across the globe were forced to close their doors as countries went into lockdown to control the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of items of clothing went unsold and brands were quick to cancel contracts with their suppliers. They were less quick to pay up for the clothes that had already been made.
A report from the Center for Global Workers’ Rights and Worker Rights Consortium estimated the unpaid bills at a total of $16 billion – approximately £11.6 billion – as of October 2020 . Big retail groups had simply refused to pay suppliers the outstanding balance, leading to ruin for many garment factories. These unpaid bills have had a devastating effect on garment workers who were already living in poverty.
It isn’t only the coronavirus pandemic that causes factory workers to lose earnings. Plenty of countries have laws around severance pay for workers who are made redundant or lose their jobs because their employer goes bankrupt. But many garment factories don’t offer severance pay to their workers. So, if contracts are cancelled or the factory goes out of business, workers are left unpaid.
Gender-based discrimination is an endemic problem in the fashion industry’s supply chain, where 80% of garment workers are female – often a deliberate choice by factory owners .
Many garment factories are located in countries where women’s voices are still not heard or valued. Women also tend to bear the brunt of unpaid additional labour in caring for their families and homes. This means they have less time to organise and are less likely to be listened to if they do. Women also report frequent harassment and physical abuse while at work. Many employers don’t offer maternity pay, and women risk losing their jobs if they become pregnant.
Discrimination isn’t limited to gender. It is telling that garment workers worldwide are predominately people of color. Even in countries where white people are the majority, such as the UK, most workers in garment factories are from minority ethnic groups.
What’s being done about this?
The exploitation of workers in the fashion industry is nothing new. But change can be hard and slow going – it requires governments, suppliers, and brands to work together to create better working practices.
Several groups are campaigning for workers’ rights and have had some successes. By raising awareness of the issues, these campaigners put pressure on brands to do better. The brands in turn put pressure on their suppliers, and governments are more willing to put legislation in place if they see demand from foreign investors.
Groups working to improve conditions for garment workers include:
- Asia Floor Wage Alliance: An Asian-led organisation founded in 2007, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance campaigns for a fair living wage for garment workers, gathering data on what a genuine living wage looks like in each country.
- The Clean Clothes Campaign: Founded in 1989, the Clean Clothes Campaign brings together over 230 organisations worldwide to support workers in lobbying for better conditions. Their campaigns include Fashion Checker, which publicizes data on which brands pay garment workers a decent wage.
- Labour Behind the Label: Campaigning group, Labour Behind the Label, raises public awareness of labor issues in the fashion industry and puts pressure on brands to clean up their act.
- Fair Wear Foundation: The membership scheme run by the Fair Wear Foundation encourages brands to improve transparency in their supply chains and put pressure on their suppliers to improve conditions.
- Various Fairtrade organisations: Fairtrade originally focused on food items, but many organisations also certify clothing and textiles, especially those made from cotton.
- Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS): Although the main focus is on organic textiles, the GOTS labelling scheme also puts protections in place for workers’ rights and carries out third-party inspections to ensure these criteria are being met.
These groups, and others like them, have made some progress. The Rana Plaza disaster especially brought global attention to the conditions in garment factories and strides have been made to improve health and safety in Bangladesh, with improvements mainly due to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which inspects garment factories and enforces safe working practices.
But there is plenty of work still to do. And we, as ethical consumers, definitely have a role to play.
What can we do?
Complex supply chains and the lack of transparency make it hard for shoppers to know where and how our clothes were made. But that doesn’t mean we are powerless. The efforts of campaigning groups and labelling schemes alike to bring better working conditions have meant that many brands are trying to improve.
We can support their efforts by shopping with fashion brands that make an effort to protect the rights of workers in their supply chains. Things to look out for include:
- Transparency in how the brand sources its clothes
- Information on what they are doing to ensure the people who make their clothes receive a fair living wage
- Third-party certifications, such as GOTS, Fairtrade, or membership of the Fair Wear Foundation
Larger brands are often listed on the Fashion Checker website, meaning you can see how well they are doing at prioritising workers’ rights.
We can also put pressure on fashion companies who aren’t doing enough to protect the workers in their supply chains. Email them, comment on social media, sign petitions – the more pressure we put on brands to clean up their act, the more likely they are to take the issues seriously. Ultimately, you might want to avoid shopping with these brands altogether until they have made genuine changes to their working practices.