The global garment and sportswear industry was founded on exploitation. These are the key issues and how we work to tackle them.
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Tens of millions of people work in the global garment and sportswear industry. The vast majority of them work extremely long hours, for very little pay. Sweatshop wages can be found from Asia to Eastern Europe to Latin America, with major brands admitting that literally zero of their workers earn a living wage.
Fashion's search for the lowest costs comes at a high price: the health and sometimes even lives of workers. Thousands have died in factory fires and collapses. And other dangers lurk, like the use of hazardous chemicals or sandblasting. Then there's the noise, heat and bad ventilation.
Bad contracts, no job security
Subcontracting work is the norm in the industry, often several layers deep. That means workers don't get a regular contract, but a series of short-term contracts or not even that. Forced overtime is common. Home workers and other vulnerable groups are even more at risk, as are workers in special "Free Trade Zones" or the informal sector.
Unclear supply chains
The garment and footwear industry stretches around the world. Clothes and shoes sold in stores in the US, Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world typically travel across the globe. A T-shirt label might say “Made in China,” but in which of the country’s thousands of factories was this garment made? And under what conditions for workers?
Waste and pollution
The garment industry is one of the largest carbon polluters on planet Earth, and one of the greatest producers of waste. Three out of five of the 100 billion garments made in 2018 will end up in landfill within a year. Toxic chemicals land in the environment and worker communities, and the production of cotton uses up vast amounts of water.
Worker rights violations
Factory workers who manage to organise often face repression, or are fired. Fashion brands sometimes try to deny their responsability by hiding behind the fact they are outsourcing their production. However, international standards make clear that brands must make sure that all labour rights need to be respected and full remedy needs to be given when violations occur.
Eighty percent of the estimated 40-60 million garment workers are female, and this is not a coincidence. In an industry notorious for less-than-decent working conditions, low wages, forced overtime and unsafe conditions, women are often deprived of maternity leave, child care and safe travel to work. These structural violations are made worse by gender based violence.
Exploitation of migrants
Hundreds of thousands of migrants are employed throughout the garment and textile supply chains around the world. They are subjected to many of the same abuses that local workers encounter. However, these abuses are compounded by the specific contexts in which migrant workers work.
Most production takes place in countries with the lowest wages, but also with the worst record on union freedom. Major garment producing countries, such as China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, The Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam belong to the worst countries for workers to organise in.
Weak, voluntary efforts by brands
Fashion brands have lots of nice policies listed on their websites. The problem is, most of these are non-binding and voluntary. Factory inspections are often announced before-hand, and are done by auditing firms who are paid by the brands, without any involvement of workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic is touching lives all over the planet, but is hitting garment workers in particular. They risk their health working in crowded factories without sufficient protection and risk their livelihood if they are sent home without pay. Brands and retailers need to act to protect the workers who have enabled their profits in the past.
Garment production is a major contributor to climate change and garment workers are being severely affected. Brands must urgently address the need for industry wide solutions to social and environmental crises concurrently. You can’t have one without the other.
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