It’s estimated that there are almost 46 million people enslaved around the world today, with 21 million being victims of forced labour. The fast fashion industry is a massive driving force in the slavery epidemic. The high demand for cheap clothing with fast-paced turn over has caused many parts of the supply chain to look for slave labour in a bid to keep up with the demand.
Locked in supply chains
You can find slave labour in every part of the supply chain. Uzbekistan is one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world and up until 2010, thousands of school children as young as 8 or 9, were forced to work for months on the cotton farms in Uzbekistan. Thanks to international pressure this is no longer the case, but instead the Uzbekistan government now forces over 1 million adults with integral jobs such as doctors and teachers into the fields. This leaves the country without fundamental skills for months and the hazardous, long working conditions often lead to illness and occasionally even death.
Slavery is also found further down the supply chain. Garment workers who put our clothes together are often recruited from some of the poorest villages in countries like Bangladesh. They are encouraged to sell what little they have and move across or out the country to find work. Once they arrive they’re forced to work extremely long hours without breaks or days off. Even if they want to leave, the debt from migrating is so high they have no choice but to stay.
In Bangladesh young girls are regularly trafficked and 30% of them end up across the border working in Indian garment factories. There is no border control between India and Bangladesh, so sometimes they have no idea they are leaving their country. They soon become trapped in a cycle of working 16 – 20 hour days back-to-back.
Many workers make their own decisions to move away from their rural homes and look for work in garment factories in the city. Although they find work, they’re often barely be able to afford food and adequate shelter. There have been many cases where garment workers go without pay for months and have no choice but to keep working till the factory owner pays them what they’re owed. This is a direct result of brands pushing down prices again and again, until factory owners are unable to pay their staff for the garments they make.
The fight for rights
Although organisations within countries like Bangladesh, China and India have campaigned for workers’ rights and the implementation of trade unions, many garment workers are too afraid to get involved. They are threatened with violence or dismissal if they fight for their rights. In China, the world’s largest producer of clothes, labour-rights activists are routinely rounded up and put in prison just for demanding a living wage and safe and humane working conditions.
It’s not just garment factories where workers rights are abused. Many factories outsource work to thousands of homeworkers in a bid to keep costs down. These are often women unable to leave their homes because of sick relatives, children or social exclusion. They work long hours at home creating clothes for the factories. Working in isolation leaves them at high risk of exploitation, as there’s no one to help if the factory underpays them, if at all.
Starting new trends
So what can we do? The first step is to stop buying fast fashion and cheap products. When an item is so cheap, you need to be asking yourself why? The answer is most likely slavery within the supply chain. If we stop buying cheap and fast fashion the demand will decrease. The brands won’t push the prices down, the factories will be able to keep up with demand, workers will be paid properly and entire countries will benefit from communities functioning as they should be.
The Modern Slavery Act was a great step forward for eradicating slavery within the supply chain. It demands that any UK business with a turnover of £36 million or above must produce a slavery and human trafficking report each year, detailing the steps made to ensure slavery isn’t a part of their supply chain. These are then published publicly for all to see. We now have the option as consumers to choose the brands actively working to eradicate slavery from their supply chains.
Choose Fairtrade, choose the more expensive option with the transparent supply chain and choose to help the thousands of people who need us to speak up for them. When we buy differently we can change the world.