Clothing is something we buy when we either need it or when we are having impulses telling us to buy a nice shirt even if it might be a little more pricey than we’d like. But more often than not, we buy it without taking into account where it’s coming from and what kinds of people are making it. Unfortunately, many clothing brands tend to have their products manufactured in sweatshops in impoverished areas of the world, with young children found working in dangerous working conditions and with the factories they work in not being well-constructed.
Even more sad is the fact that so many big-name brands rely on the services of sweatshops in countries like Bangladesh to manufacture their clothes. However, many companies have been caught doing such practices and have suffered the consequences as a result. With this top 10 list, we’ll be talking about 10 of those major companies that have done exactly that, and the fallout they suffered after being caught.
Some companies are known mainly in their home territory (in the case of Marks and Spencer, that home country is the United Kingdom) while others such as Nike and Gap are brands that are staples in multiple countries worldwide. Furthermore, some companies have responded emphatically (for example, Nike) to accusations of sweatshop labour, while others haven’t responded nearly as quickly or as effectively. Whatever the end result is, it’s still a controversial issue in the sense that these workers get paid extremely minimal amounts of money and work many hours a week for the sake of designing the newest trendy pieces of clothing.
Whether you buy clothing from these companies often or you don’t buy them at all, it’s still shocking enough to make you think twice about where your newest threads come from. Here are 10 of the most shocking examples of major clothing companies and sweatshop labour.
One flaw of factories that house sweatshop workers, as we show you further on in this list, is that they can occasionally be shoddily constructed and therefore cause the building to eventually collapse. In 2010, it was revealed that a factory in Bangladesh supplying to Swedish-based clothing retailer H&M had caught fire – with the fire exits blocked and with inefficient equipment to stop the fire – and killed 21 workers. Although it has tried to advertise itself as a pro-green company, H&M has a spotty track record overall, with a 1997 TV documentary in Sweden accusing the company of putting young children in the Philippines through child labour to produce their clothes.
Although Nike has since been a proponent of ethical practices and workers’ rights, their track record in the ‘90s was not nearly as bright. In fact, it was a global campaign boycotting the company that caused Nike to wise up and re-think its attitude towards unethical working conditions, improving its transparency and frequently producing reports on its inspections of factories. However, their use of sweatshop labour has gone back to the ‘70s, with reports of labour workers in several Asian countries. Furthermore, Nike’s director Todd McKean admitted in an interview that the company’s attitude was “we don’t own the factories, we don’t control what goes on in there.”
After a factory building in Bangladesh collapsed in April of 2013, it was reported shortly after that Walmart was one of the major companies that the factory building supplied to. The company said after the collapse that the use of the factory to manufacture their clothing wasn’t even authorized. Before that, Walmart was accused in 2008 of forcing Bangladeshi workers to work 19-hour shifts while only earning about $20 or so a month – lower than the legal minimum wage in Bangladesh. The incident caused the company to issue biannual ethical sourcing reports after it had stopped doing so in 2004.
7 The Gap
One of the most recognizable jean brands in the world, The Gap was caught up in a scandal involving workers in India in 2010 when an investigation showed that those workers had been working 16-hour days with extremely minimal – and illegal – pay, to the tune of less than 40 cents per day. The company claimed that all of its factories needed to stick to its “non-negotiable” standards. This is hardly the first time the company has been involved in such a scandal (a similar one involving the company transpired in 2007) but The Gap announced in 2013 that it would partner with 20 other companies to improve working conditions in Bangladesh.
6 La Senza
Although the lingerie brand La Senza is a largely Canadian company, it is far from immune in terms of its relation to sweatshops. In April of 2005, the Spectrum-Sweater factory located in Savar, Bangladesh – just northeast of the capital city of Dhaka – collapsed with 64 recorded fatalities and with some people permanently handicapped. Furthermore, in 2006, the company was called out for abandoning workers in a bra factory in Thailand and moving their production to another factory, as the one in Thailand was seen as actually having good working conditions. La Senza isn’t the only company specializing in lingerie to be caught using sweatshop labour...
5 Victoria's Secret
In 2007, the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret – a company that has vouched for free trade – was caught in a sweatshop scandal of its own when it was revealed that conditions regarding their workers in Jordan were far from ideal. In fact, such conditions involved their workers being slapped and/or beaten if their production was sub-par. Furthermore, those workers were found to have been forced to work five or more overtime hours per day, without being given the overtime pay they were legally obligated to receive. A few years later, it was revealed that their lingerie was made by cotton picked by children working in Burkina Faso.
Although Disney is one of the most recognizable brands in the world, especially among children, their history with sweatshop labour is in stark contrast to their image. Sweatshops in countries like China, Bangladesh and Haiti have been known to produce clothing for the company, with Chinese labour workers in particular being paid 33 to 41 cents an hour, with numerous employees being as young as 14 years of age with no health benefits or a pension included with their employment. In Tazreen, Bangladesh, a fire at a sweatshop producing Disney clothing – as well as brands associated with Sears and Walmart – caused the deaths of 114 workers.
Also caught up in the scandal surrounding the fire at the factory in Tazreen is the North American retailer Sears. The factory producing its clothing before the fire had locked fire exit doors and poor fire extinguishing equipment, and the workers were told to get back to work when the first fire alarm went off. Although Sears was one of the companies whose products were made at that factory, its track record with sweatshop labour in general isn’t that great. In 2003, a story was published in The Guardian about a Vietnamese worker moving to the American Samoa to make clothes for the company, only to be starved and beaten while working at the factory.
2 Joe Fresh
Once a clothing company that had come through Loblaw Inc. in Canada, Joe Fresh has since grown a massive presence in the United States, being what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls “the greatest Canadian export since Justin Bieber.” However, the company’s manufacturing was done in a sweatshop building in Bangladesh, which collapsed last year, killing nearly 400. In response, Loblaw Inc. announced that it would send representatives to the country with the intention of offering compensation to the victims’ families. After being accused of protecting their trademark but not their workers, the company vowed to be a “force for good” in Bangladesh.
1 Marks and Spencer
This U.K. company makes this list not necessarily because of how big their brand is, but because of how much of a surprise their sweatshop scandal truly was. Although they have often been praised for their emphasis on ethical practices, they and several other companies such as Gap were discovered in 2010 to have been caught up in a scandal where Indian workers were forced to work overtime – in other words, 16 hours a day in shifts – while being paid just under 25p ($1 U.S.) an hour. A spokesperson for the company responded by saying that they took “ethical sourcing and trust in our brand extremely seriously.”