Recently, the 2018 Global Slavery Index came out and sadly fashion plays a key role in modern slavery. The report includes which imported products in which countries are at the highest risk of being made by slaves and in the U.S., Germany, Canada, and Australia garments are actually the second highest product after electronics and in the U.K., Italy, and France garments are actually the top product. According to the report, it’s estimated over 40 million people are victims of modern slavery and of that, 71% of them are women.
So it’s crazy to think that these cheap fast fashion feminist tees which we’ve been seeing a lot of could’ve very well been made by women in slavery. Now, what does modern slavery look like in the fashion industry? The report defines it as: “Situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power, or deception.” In the fashion industry, this can take the form of things like bonded labour or withholding wages.
Bonded labour is basically where an employer forces a worker into debt so that they can’t leave. They might have mandatory housing that costs more than the worker’s wages, charge people arbitrary fines, or maybe pretend that somebody broke something and has to pay for it. They might even be charged for things like using the equipment, going to the bathroom, or drinking water. So they accumulate a debt and are stuck working there while they “pay it off” even though the factory will try to ensure they can’t. In India there are marriage schemes where young women are lured into working at factories by being promised a large dowry at the end of their two or three year contract.
However, after the contract is signed, they might be forced to work in terrible conditions, with abuse or sexual harrassment. They might be locked in or not allowed visitors and sometimes employers will find or make up any reason to deduct from their final payment. So they basically are trapped for years, and then might not even receive the money they were promised. Something that I also learned from the report is that sometimes forced labour can come from the government.
So apparently in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are both in the top ten cotton producing countries in the world, parts of the population are forced to work in the annual cotton harvest. Another issue with the fashion industry, which I’ve talked before about on this channel is that sometimes women who are arrested for prostitution are basically given the choice to either go to prison or work in a garment factory. And Vice News has a great piece about this and how this is happening in Cambodia, which I will link up in the cards, and really recommend watching if you haven’t seen it.
So many hands have made a single piece of clothing for you probably at least a hundred. And unfortunately, with all the clothes in our wardrobe, there’s a very good chance that some of those pieces were made by modern slaves. So what can we do about this? The first thing is support and encourage government action to prevent slavery and force brands to be more transparent with their supply chains. I was really disappointed to see that Canada is on the list of countries NOT taking action against modern slavery and I hope that that changes.
The next thing you can do is buy certified fair trade products. These certifications ensure that workers are paid fairly for their work, and also that there’s ethical working conditions. However, not all brands can afford fairtrade certifications so you can also look for brands that have strong ethical policies and auditing for their manufacturing. Another thing you can do is look for locally made products.
Now, while locally made doesn’t guarantee that something was ethically made, it’s generally a lot better, and you can often find a lot more information about the factories or where it was made. Finally, you can avoid supporting unethical fashion by shopping second hand.