In a world of £1 bikinis, £6 dresses, and influencers who chuck out clothes after just one wear, it goes without saying that the demand for quick turnaround in the clothing industry is high. Although conversations surrounding fashion’s impact on the environment is becoming increasingly prevalent, something that seems to take second place to this is its impact on people, with forced and underpaid labour and still rife across the industry. According to the the Global Slavery Index, over 40 million people trapped in modern slavery around the world, with roughly 71 per cent of those being women.
Now, the Freedom Fund – an institution which works to mobilise the knowledge, capital, and will to end slavery – has set out to tackle this issue head-on, releasing a new report detailing how it has successfully reduced the exploitation of workers in focused areas such as India.
Investing $15 million into more than 40 frontline non-governmental organisations, the Freedom Fund has helped stop labour abuses, protected workers’ rights, and changed the structural conditions that enable unfair labour practices to take place.
“One key factor contributing to the risk of forced and bonded labour in supply chains is the use of irresponsible purchasing practices by brands,” Yuki Ali, Freedom Fund’s senior monitoring and evaluation manager explains. “Increasingly, companies’ success depends on their ability to produce something ’new’ to meet consumer demands, resulting in smaller orders and shorter turnaround times. Suppliers, therefore, often pressure workers to work excessive overtime to fulfil high quotas or resort to unauthorised subcontracting, which carries even higher risks of exploitation.”
For an industry that is estimated to be worth nearly $300bn, there should be no excuse for the abuse of workers at any level. But according to a report from 2018, 28 out of 43 companies scored less than 50 out of 100 when addressing the risk of forced labour in its supply chains.
This issue was brought to the public’s attention in 2013 after the collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 people. Brands including Mango, Primark, and Bonmarché were linked to suppliers which operated out of the building. The disaster ended up sparking a worldwide debate about the safety standards in the garment industry.
With global buyers typically only monitoring labour standards in their first-tier suppliers and ‘conveniently ignoring the subsequent tiers of subcontractors, where most of the labour abuses take place’ it is often those already in precarious positions who get exploited.
Despite ethical and sustainable fashion becoming an increasing presence in fashion discourse, Ali stresses that ethical fashion should just be the norm. “There should be no distinction between ethical fashion and normal fashion … The fashion industry needs to start acknowledging the scale of labour exploitation and forced labour in their supply chains. And, consumers should also address their consumption habits to make conscious purchasing decisions and shop less often.”