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21st century Slavery in the Fashion Industry

If you thought slavery was really abolished from the modern world in the 19th century, think again. Below are some shocking news excerpts the reveal the atrocious, unethical practices towards worker exploitation in the textile and fashion industry.

“To harvest cotton, officials once again forced more than a million people … to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs. People picked cotton for shifts of 15 – 40 days, working long hours and enduring abysmal living conditions, including overcrowding and insufficient access to safe drinking water and hygiene facilities.” (Uzbek German Forum Report 2015)

“Uzbekistan accused of brutal crackdown on activists investigating forced labour. Rights workers and locals who document slave labour during annual cotton harvest complain of beatings, intimidation and harassment.” (Oct 2015, The Guardian)

“The abuse of girls and women workers in the South Indian textile industry …in the spinning mills of Tamil Nadu, some as young as 15, are mostly recruited from marginalised Dalit communities in impoverished rural areas. They are forced to work long hours for low wages. They live in very basic company-run hostels and are hardly ever allowed to leave the company compound.” (ICN & SOMO Report 2014)

“In Buenos Aires city alone, it is estimated that over 3,000 clandestine sweatshops churn out cheap garments by employing on the black market and ignoring the workers’ rights enshrined in Argentine law. Garments produced in illegal factories don’t just end up on the stalls of obviously dodgy counterfeiters, but on the shelves of respected fashion brands.” (The Argentina Independent, Dec 2015)

“In Turkish sweatshops, Syrian children sew to survive … (9-year-old) Muna and her family arrived in Turkey from Syria in 2013. For the past few weeks she has helped her father and 13-year-old brother Muhamed in a basement they rent, making cheap tops, dresses and T-shirts for other textile suppliers. Her father Mahmud says some of the clothes are sold in Europe.” (, July 2016)

According to Anti-Slavery International, someone is in slavery if they are:

  • Forced to work – through mental or physical threat;

  • Owned or controlled by an ’employer’, usually through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse;

  • Dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’;

  • Physically constrained or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement. In the news and reports cited above, you will find, in each instance, a form of slavery. These are only a few examples from the textile industry. What’s worse, it is very likely that many of us are unknowingly but directly using products made from slave labour in the 21st century.

From harvesting the cotton to spinning the fibre to yarn, sewing the garments and modelling the final product, the textiles and fashion industries grapple with exploitative labour at many stages.

A many-tiered supply-chain that consists of contractors and subcontractors and offshore production facilities, makes it difficult for illegal, inhumane activities to be traced from raw-material to the final product.

The nature of the cheaply priced, fast-paced, ‘disposable’ fashion industry is such that retailers have new designs in shops almost every weeks, with many thousand designs a year. The cost-competition and turn-around times required of manufacturers down the supply chain result in staggering environmental and human costs.

What is the 21st Century Doing About Slavery?

It is difficult to find a silver lining in these clouds. Small successes however, do shine a light on possibilities for the future. Some examples:

“Two global union organisations – UNI and IndustriALL – have taken the lead on improving conditions for Bangladesh’s workers but there is still a long way to go.

A year on from the Rana Plaza tragedy … huge factory inspection programme is in full swing. Each factory is inspected for structural integrity and fire and electrical safety.” (The Guardian, April 2014)

… (under international pressure) “The Uzbek government has committed to not use forced labour, particularly for the purpose of economic development …

Despite its commitments, the Uzbek government continues systematic forced labour on a mass scale. From the president to the local neighbourhood committees (“mahalla”), all levels of government are orchestrating the forced labour system” (Uzbek German Forum Report, September 2015)

“In Argentina, there are now 20 brand names that guarantee that their garments are produced by workers in decent working conditions…” (IPS News, March 2016)

” … the minimum wage for the crucial sector of Cambodia’s economy would rise to U.S. $153 per month. Currently the minimum wage of workers is $140. While the increase falls short of the $171-a-month wage proposal pushed by the unions, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) fears that the increase will damage their ability to compete with other lower-wage countries.” (Radio Free Asia, Oct 2016)

Child labour declined by 30% between 2000 and 2012. 11% of the world’s children, many of who work in the fashion supply chain, remain in situations that deprive them of their right to go to school without interference from work. (International Labour Organisation Estimates)

Slaves of Fashion. Slaves for Fashion.

This quote by Bangladeshi journalist Zafar Sobhan, captures the complexity of why nations like Uzbekistan, China, Bangladesh, Argentina, Turkey and India practice socially unacceptable practices:

“this dehumanizing, soul-destroying, exploitative trade … utterly transformed the economic and social landscape of the country.

In the 40 years since independence, the poverty rate has plummeted from 80 percent down to less than 30 percent today, GDP growth has averaged around 5-6 percent for over 20 years, and the garment industry has had a lot to do with it.”

For economic prosperity alone, developing nations succumb to pressures to service the consumption patterns of the developed world. Stakeholders in the textile trade including governments, global retailers, local manufacturers, customers of fashion across the world as well as garment workers themselves, all bear the burden of modern-day slavery and the responsibility to work against it, within their respective spheres of influence.

Ask Yourself if You Are a Slave of Fashion. Aren’t you?

It will do well to remember then, that somewhere, someone may be a slave for this fashion.

Each time you reach for that delightfully low-priced garment on the shelf, ask if another human being is paying the hidden price for your cheap buy with his/her sweat, health and dignity.



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