When you think of slavery, images of chains and shackles are usually conjured up. Images of people working in fields and mines. You probably even think that slavery was a thing of the 1800’s and doesn’t exist anymore. And if you are aware that slavery still exists, you probably think that it is because of rebel groups in war torn countries. That it couldn’t possibly be happening in any civilised country or because of civilised business people. However, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that only 2 million of the 21 million people currently being exploited as slaves by rebel groups. That leaves another 19 million people working as slaves for private or individual enterprises.
But just like everything else in the world since the 1800’s, slavery has also been modernised. And without all the chains and things, it is not always as obvious as old school slavery. And the fashion industry is rife with it.
Modern slavery takes many different forms. Bonded labour is the most widespread form of slavery in the world. People are forced to repay their debts by working, but they are paid so little that there is no hope that they could ever pay it back.
Similarly, labour brokers recruit young, vulnerable people from small villages. These people are required to pay a fee to the broker in order to secure a job in a garment factory. The problem is, this fee is excessively high, forcing the worker to take it out as loan and repay it with interest. Of course, with their pitiful wages they can never pay it back and they become the property of the labour broker.
Human trafficking is another form of slavery. People from poor backgrounds are promised a new life and a wonderful new job, only to be sold as a worker to somebody else and have their passports and other important documents taken from them. Although slavery looks different today, the principle is the same: people being exploited and violated to work under unimaginable conditions in order make other people rich.
Research conducted by Baptist World Aid for their garment industry report, Apparel Industry Trends 2015, found that 91% of brands don’t know where their cotton comes from. 75% don’t even know where all of their fabrics come from. The report represents information gathered from 59 companies that make up over 200 worldwide fashion brands. And these are not all small, unknown brands. Many of these brands are industry leaders who are turning over millions of dollars every year in profits and churning out just as many clothes. There is really no excuse for these brands not knowing this crucial supply chain information. Clearly for these brands, the important question is not how their clothes are made or where their materials are sourced, but how much it is going to cost.
Such negligence and lack of transparency is what fuels slavery in the garment industry.
However, Patagonia is one clothing brand that is setting an example within the garment industry when it comes to tackling the issue of slavery in the supply chain. In 2011, company audits revealed the reliance of labour brokers in their own supply chain. And you know what they did? They published a blog about it, admitting what they had found. And then they actually took actions to rectify the issue. New standards were introduced that included banning suppliers from requiring migrant workers to pay broker fees. Companies either had to pay the fees themselves or find workers without using a broker. Shocking, right? A garment brand actually taking responsibility for something horrible happening in their supply chain, rather than passing the blame or denying the issue altogether.
The UK Government also recently introduced a new Modern Slavery Act (2015) which hopes to increase transparency within business in order to eradicate slavery. Companies that have an annual turnover of over AU$70 million and operate within the UK are required to publish a slavery statement annually, that includes information such as the steps the business is taking in ensuring slavery doesn’t exist in their supply chain and its policies relating to slavery and human trafficking.
This Act is definitely a step in the right direction and highlights the need for governments to step in and enforce policies where businesses fail to take responsibility. Unfortunately, there are too many companies within the fashion industry that are only in it to make a bucket load of money, without considering their impact on society. Therefore, laws such as this are developed to look out for the little guy. It will be interesting to see over the years how this law will influence changes within the garment industry and the business practices of fashion brands.
Were you already aware of modern slavery in the textile industry? Share your thoughts below!