Fashion's Dirty Laundry: Labour
This is part 2 of a Crushes series on Fashion's Laundry List of Problems. This is where we are breaking down the industries problems in to three key categories; Waste, Labour and Over Consumption.
The conversation about "conscious consumerism" started gaining momentum in 2013 when the world learnt about the collapse of Rena Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh. It killed 1,300 of its garment workers. It wasn't the first nor the last tragic incident where health and safety of garment workers were compromised - but it ignited the beginning of Fashion Revolution Week (the global advocate group and movement) and highlighted the hundreds of millions of garment workers whose health and quality of life is exploited for the profit of the brands we love.
The beginning of a garment starts with a seed. India once had a thriving textile industry, and now they have a suicide epidemic with their cotton farmers. Let me introduce you to the villain of this story; Monsanto (and friends). Monsanto is a large agricultural company that has brought us Agent Orange, Round Up, and also now produces most of the worlds seeds - all of which are genetically modified. Monsanto entered cotton markets like India and made their seeds “intellectual property” for which it started collecting royalties, raising the cost of seed. Because the seed is now "patented", they changed the make up of the seed to make them unable to self-propagate. The cotton seed killed the seed diversity, bringing disease and infestations throughout the cotton crops, rendering the soil unusable.
For the small harvest that these farmers can yield, the buyers for cotton want their product for less. Knowing that the seed price is increasing and the supply price is dipping, desperate in-debted farmers accept the price, severely undercharging what the product is worth. The buyers know this desperation and can use it for their advantage in getting the lowest possible price, bringing the market value of cotton lower and lower each year. Unable to pay mountains of debt, enduring harvests of crop failures, and no longer having their now-toxic farm as an asset, it has caused a suicide pandemic in all cotton-producing countries like Canada, Brazil, USA and India who work with Bt seeds.
Then there are the textile producers. They are the workers who turn natural resources like cotton, silk and leather, and turn them in to large rolls of coloured, patterned, embellished fabric! They are extremely skilled and are extremely vulnerable to poor pay and unsafe work conditions. The textile industry has roughly 40 million workers, and is one of the most labour intensive manufacturing careers in the world, working long days for little pay. The workers are exposed to extremely hazardous chemicals where only 35% of audited companies actually commit to the industrial standard (MRSL).
You often hear about nasty 'fast fashion'. The reason why this stream of fashion bares the brunt of most of the hate is because they need to fulfill the speed of quickly changing fashion trends. Some companies design, make and fulfill orders of 900 garments per week. This requires a lot of people, and a lot of speed.
These manufacturing companies are often in underdeveloped countries with corrupt governments and/or forceful employers who don't validate unions, imprison strikers, and blacklist activists from other employment. The factories don't have enforced health and safety standards. Some workers get beaten, some work 14-16 hour days, seven days a week, some faint due to long hours and lack of air ventilation. 80% of the workforce are women and are subject to sexual assault and a gender pay gap.
Some are in what is called 'forced labour'. This is where a worker is enticed to a job, and then gets paid far too low, is told they now have to repay the debts, and they aren't able to leave. These forced workers get paid less than 30c NZD a day, some with locks on the doors. They can be children, and they can be elderly. They are isolated, and can't get help. They say forced labour is one of the biggest contributors to modern day slavery.
The pressure to keep the price low is seen through every stage of the garments life cycle. Just like the farmers, the textile industry and the production manufacturers, they all have buyers higher in their food chain that want more for less. Because the whole industry is running at such a loss, their vulnerability is exploited which further drives down the market price of the goods they make. All of which stem from companies such as Nike, H&M, Zara, et all, needing to keep their RRP down and their profit margins up.
Here's the thing: The garment workers want to work. They are incredibly skilled at what they do. But in the words of a garment worker who hand sewed a plea of help in to a dress, they are "forced to work exhausting hours". Garment workers want a quality of life that I deem to be a human right; fair pay, and safe working conditions. Unfortunately because they need money to survive, they won't be able to break out of the poverty cycle until the fashion industry is disrupted. Corporate greed and consumerism need to be addressed. We need a revolution!
So that is some dirty, dirty laundry. It doesn't finish here, please read part 3 about Fashions Dirty Laundry, fast fashion and our over consumption.