By Beatrice Tridimas
The cheaper and easier it is for you to buy clothing, the more someone else is paying the price.
Being a more conscious consumer not only benefits your pocket and the environment but the very people who make your clothes. Here is an overview of the human rights violations going on in the fashion industry and some suggestions as to what exactly you can do to help.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude (Article 4, Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
Trafficking takes many forms. It’s hard to recognise and pin down. As a concept, it’s understood differently depending on who you ask. And yet, it’s the third largest criminal industry in the world. In garment production it manifests in forced, under-paid labour.
Forced labour stems from pressure to keep production costs low. Fast fashion quite literally means the fastest production at the lowest price. If a buying country demands cheap clothing quicker and quicker, suppliers might knock down their prices to keep business going. This would have a knock-on effect down the supply chain, meaning more workers being under-paid, exploited and abused.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights (Article 1).
Around 80% of garment workers are women. This means that more women suffer the on-going rights violations in the fashion industry than men. On top of this, women are targeted to take on poorly paid work and become more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse due to pre-existing gender inequality. In many countries, women are automatically paid less than men and don’t have the opportunity for promotion.
Women are also subject to sexual and physical violence which they are unable to protest. It’s thought that around 14% of garment workers in Bangalore have been sexually abused and between 40-50% had experience verbal abuse and humiliation.
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All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection (Article 25, subsection 2).
It’s estimated that 16.7 million children between 5 and 17 work in South Asia. Cheaper than women, children are the least costly employees. Poverty is the chief reason for child labour, yet ironically, children that leave school to work earn less than those who finish school. Whilst no parent wants to subject their child to cruelty, it can make more sense to send them to earn money than spend money on an inadequate education. Anyango Mpinga of Free As A Human tells me that it’s very common in cotton growing for mothers to bring their children to work due to a lack of childcare.
‘The farmer’s not going to complain,’ she says, ‘he’s getting an extra hand for free. Who’s going to speak up for the child, no one’s going to speak up for the child.’
Everyone has the right to just and favourable conditions of work. (Article 23).
Average monthly earnings of garment workers in Asian countries is less than £150. Many places have no minimum wage, and those that do, most likely fall short of living wages.
In order to meet demand for cost efficiency, informal labour is on the rise. Those in unofficial employment have nothing to protect their rights, thus making it easier to violate them.
Those working at the earliest stages of garment production, such as cotton farmers are exposing themselves to countless nasty chemicals. Little is done to regulate the use of harsh chemicals in garment manufacturing. Workers are both directly affected in their jobs and indirectly affected by air pollution and water contamination.
97% of items are now made overseas. Supply chains are so long and complex and crossing multiple borders, it becomes impossible to regulate production and trace violations.
It’s also not clear where responsibilities lie. Governments of producing countries are responsible for enforcing legitimate human rights protection, but brands also have a moral responsibility to ensure slavery is not involved in the goods that they sell, which should include regulation of the ENTIRE supply chain.
Workers don’t know who they are actually producing clothing for and thus can’t report abuse higher up in the chain. Often, they are banned from forming unions so any attempt to stand up for their own rights is met with further mistreatment.
Consumers are demanding more and more for less and less. This constant need for more fuels demand to produce more for less. This means keeping production costs low by paying workers less (or not at all) and completely foregoing legal working hours or environmental regulation.
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What current legislation exists to stop this from happening?
In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, acting as a common standard of what human rights legislation should look like. It covers everything from equality, to freedom, to our treatment of each other and, applies to ‘all members of the human family.’
The clearest thing is that the declaration applies to every person equally. However, it is important to remember that it is mere guideline and does not actually place countries under legal obligation. It is thus left to individual countries to regulate human rights within their corporations.
What can we do about it?
Here are a few things you as consumers can do to start facilitating change within the industry.
You can also support their other initiatives, such as petitions, reports and investigations which they send to parliament to propose fairer measures within the industry.
Support small brands and local businesses. Some of our favourite brands who disclose their anti-trafficking measures are: Filippa K, Everlane, Sézane whilst Adidas, Reebok and Patagonia top Fashion Revolution’s list.
Look for the Fairtrade label – it’s the closest thing we’ve got right now to a certification of anti-trafficking.
Antislavery.org have advice on how to spot victims of slavery and trafficking and what to do.
Start conversations. Mpinga works with HAART Kenya, a charity working with victims of trafficking and slavery. She tells me that working with communities and having conversations about human rights and what’s going on is the first way to raise awareness.
When we collectively understand what modern slavery actually is, we can begin to identify cases of it and implement protection more effectively.