Who doesn’t love a bargain? When that embellished pink designer blazer you have been coveting, donned by your favourite celebrity, arrives at your nearest high street store in imitation form, it’s pretty hard to resist snapping it up. High street stores are filled with the latest fashion trends from the catwalks of London, Paris and Milan for a fraction of the price to the delight of most of us. However, have you ever stopped and thought about where these clothes originate from? Our desire to have the latest ‘must-have’ design at a price to suit our respective budgets usually means that someone along the supply chain has had to suffer.
A high portion of the clothes available in high street shops have been manufactured in sweatshops, which are defined by the U.S. Department of Labour as factories that ‘violate two or more labour laws.’ They usually pay their employees, who work in unsafe and unsanitary environments, significantly less than minimum wage. Disturbing figures released by the International Labour Organization estimates that ‘250 million children, 61% in Asia, 32% in Africa, and 7% in Latin America’ are employed in sweatshops with women making up 85 to 90 percent of sweatshop workers.’
UNITE, the U.S. garment workers union further defines sweatshops as factories that prevent the formation of independent unions to campaign for better working conditions. A previous report carried out by Business Week revealed that employers imposed various fines on workers for taking too long while using the toilet, making minor mistakes and arriving late. What is particularly disturbing about this is that due to the high cost of the fines, workers are often unable to pay them off, finding themselves trapped in a system which essentially equates to modern day slavery. Hundreds of people are being killed annually due to poor working conditions in the name of a disposable fashion industry.
Unsafe working conditions at the Menderes Tekstil factory in Denizli, Turkey resulted in the deaths of four of its workers. On a daily basis, workers are faced with harassment and poor working conditions. They are exposed to the risks posed by sandblasting in order to create the effect of distressed denim, which has led to silicosis among factory workers. During this process, workers fire sand at jeans under high pressure. The sand breaks down into fine silica sand particles and without sufficient protection, workers inhale this which often leads to Silicosis. According to Dr. Tekin Yildiz, ‘as little as two months of work’ in this environment can trigger Silicosis. Labour Behind The Labour has found that 47 former sandblasting operators in Turkey ‘have died as a direct result of sandblasting related Silicosis.’ While the pay is not as low as in some of the other countries on the list, the health risks posed to workers are worrying
Those working in the textile and garment industry in Indonesia receive exceptionally low wages, the minimum wage amounting to $2 per day, or Rp 5200. It has been estimated that the minimum daily amount required to meet basic needs in Indonesia amounts to Rp 6200. It is worth noting that this figure is based on the lowest scale of living standards. As Nike has several factories in Indonesia, the spotlight has been on the poor conditions faced by workers for some time. Workers have claimed that they have been mentally and physically abused by their supervisors receiving slaps and being called names during working hours for making minor mistakes. Nike has confirmed that these allegations are true and are continuing to work on improving conditions for factory workers.
A study carried out by the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH) on sweatshops in Mexico startlingly revealed that 1.5 million children and teenagers between the ages of 5-17 are illegally employed in the country. Over half of these children receive minimal or no pay at all.
The enormous pressures facing workers at one Mexican sweatshop sees employees expected to meet a quota of 1,000 items per day. In order to meet this quota, workers would need to produce more than one item a minute. GlobalExchange.org have stated that the ‘quota is so high that the workers are unable to have a drink or go to the toilet all day.’
Human Rights Watch has reported that managers of the Maquiladoras in Mexico take drastic measures to avoid paying maternity benefits to their female employees by forcing them to ‘prove that they are menstruating.’ This is an exceptionally demeaning act carried out by employers and it is a violation of Mexican laws.
A shocking 482 million people in China ‘live on less than $2 a day’, according to a report carried out by War on Want. For many of these people, employment in sweatshop factories is their only option. They are forced to work under extreme conditions posing severe health risks. The recent fashion trend of distressed denim is created by using sandblasting, a technique that exposes workers to ‘silica dust particles which severely damage their respiratory passages causing silicosis’. In extreme cases, this can lead to death. This is carried out in factories that produce jeans for brands such as Levi Strauss, H&M and Gap and the report found that these factories are ‘involved in various levels of non-compliance with existing health and safety regulations.’
In recent months, workers in sweatshops in Cambodia have started to stand up and fight for fair working conditions and better pay. Last year, the world watched in horror as armed forces opened fire on strikers in the capital city of Phnom Penh ‘killing five and injuring dozens’ as reported by IPS. The workers were striking due to the deplorable conditions under which they are working. Families in Cambodia need about $100 per month, yet factory wages amount to about $64 per month. A report carried out by the International Labour Organisation last year found that ‘24 factories kept emergency exits locked during working hours’ putting workers at serious risk given fire is the greatest threat to these factories. They are working in extremely long hours in excessive heat with few breaks. The report also found that many sweatshop factories in Cambodia employ children under the age of 15 which is a breach of the law.
Trafficking gangs in Dien Bien, one of Vietnam’s poorest provinces, recruit children under the guise of fair employment only to force them into sweatshop factories in Ho Chi Minh City where they work excessively long hours for little or no pay. If workers do not meet their daily quota, they are at risk of beatings or fines. Vietnam based charity Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues children that have essentially become imprisoned in these sweatshops. The charity raided a factory in 2012 where they discovered the harrowing conditions people were working and living in, a spokesperson stating that employees were only allowed to use the bathroom for ‘eight minutes a day, including brushing your teeth, washing, going to the toilet.’
On the 24th of April 2013, the world was faced with the consequences of cheap clothing. The eight floor in Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka collapsed. Tragically, 1,100 employees died as a result of the collapse with over 2,000 injured. Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest exporter of clothes and with several factories that fail to conform to safety regulations operating in the country, this is a regular occurrence. The Rana Plaza factory was operating without a safety certificate. As is the case with many sweatshops, the supervisor in this case locked the gates of the building while workers were still inside. Management told BBC Panorama reporter Richard Bilton that the locking of gates was a means to stop employees stealing. The Maquila Solidarity Network has stated that this and other buildings have collapsed ‘as a result of factory owners violating building codes and health and safety regulations.’