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Unethical Fashion : Exploitation of Women and Children

Who doesn’t love being on trend? The evolution and rapid growth of the textile and apparel industry is proof that fashion is an important part of people’s lives. Clothing and apparel trends off and on the runway change with seasons and people along the whole value chain, from cotton growers, sheep farmers and silk farmers, to textile millers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers, have to make and sell more clothes to keep feed this demand.

But in order to produce the garments we wear and satisfy our need to keep up with trends, there are those who pay a very steep price. Most garment production is done in developing countries, which do not have strict rules for worker safety, wage regulations or child protection.

Workers in these countries operate under the sweatshop model, which is characterised by low cost of production and unethical practices such as child labour, working long hours for low pay and poor and unhygienic working conditions.

Unethical Fashion Production

According to a 2011 report on India, 3 million people, majority of whom are women, work in the textile production industry under inhumane conditions such as:

  • Workers start off at a low monthly wage of between 25 pounds (approx. USD 30) to 32 pounds (approx. USD 39). The low wages, which are way below minimum wage, means that the workers will always be stuck in the poverty cycle.

  • A typical work day starts at 8am and ends at 10pm, for a total of 14-hours daily. Overtime hours are also long (140 hours a week), and often compulsory. As a result, of working very long hours, workers often suffer from fatigue and have no time for anything else.

  • They are subjected to abuse and beatings. Workers do not report incidences of abuse or beatings because they fear they’ll lose their jobs. Needless to say, thisdenies workers their dignity as human beings.

  • Production targets are too high and difficult for workers to achieve. The report lists one example where workers had a target of producing 20 ladies’ blouses per hour.

  • Job security is not guaranteed as majority of the workers are employed on short contracts.

  • The story is the same in Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Morocco, Mexico, Brazil, Ethiopia among other countries.

In Indonesia for instance, job security is not guaranteed. An investigation carried out by the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) uncovered that workers in Indonesia were hired and laid off based on changes in production demands.

In another report on Cambodia, workers have professed to being demoted, fired or criticised for getting pregnant, joining labour unions or even getting sick.

Statistics by the government in Cambodia also suggest that around 2000 factory workers faint yearly at work as a result of exhaustion.

Female workers in Vietnam, Brazil and Morocco are denied maternity benefits. In Vietnam for instance, women workers have to sign a contract not to become pregnant.

According to a report by the United Nations Research Institute, the patriarchal system of management practiced by most factories puts women in a position where they have to practice total obedience.

Child Labor and Exploitation

One of the major factors that characterises fashion as unethical is the use of child labour in textile manufacture and garment production.

Countries in Asia, south America and Africa are worst affected by child labour. Statistics from Ethiopia for instance, show that 27% of minors aged between 5- and 17 work in textile weaving.

Child labour is also prevalent in cotton harvesting as it provides a cheap alternative to mechanisation. It is a practice common in countries like Kenya, India, Kazakhstan, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other cotton producing countries in Africa, South America and Asia. In Uzbekistan for instance, children are forced out of class to go and harvest cotton in the summer.

A report by the U.S. Bureau of International Labour affairs maintains that children who are forced to work in the textile and clothing production sector face conditions such as: Working for long hours, operating dangerous equipment, working with harmful chemicals, being cooped up in sweatshops that have poor hygiene, lighting and ventilation, and carrying loads that are too heavy.

Some of the children have to drop out of school as families get accustomed to or need the additional income.

What Can Be Done to Promote Ethical Fashion?

Any person or entity that is involved in the production, manufacture, logistics, sale or purchase of products made under sweatshop conditions, promotes unethical fashion. Even policy makers who fail to make or enforce rules for protecting workers are guilty.

It will take the effort of all these individuals and entities to stop unethical fashion; they can do so in the following ways:

1| Brands need to adopt corporate social responsibility needs to be at the core of their sourcing and supply chain activities. Though most brands speak against unethical fashion, the reality in their manufacturing and production plants overseas prove that brands put profits first.

2| Governments in countries where large fashion brands are based should impose regulations against sourcing items from countries that abuse human rights, especially those that practice child labour.

3| Consumers should make it their business to know where their clothes are manufactured and if their favourite brands are engaging in unethical fashion production.

4| Not-for-profit organisations have been at the forefront of this campaign and have achieved a lot of changes, but they need more support from policy makers and citizens.

5| Factories and Manufacturing Units in countries where cheap fashion production is rampant, need to enact laws against labour exploitation. They also need to protect the rights of textile workers to unionise.



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