By Vaasav Gupta
Textiles, or fiber-based materials, are heavily involved in several industries such as clothing, furniture, and art. And while it has always been critical to the global economy, the textile industry is growings – it is expected to reach a market size of $1.42 trillion by 2030 1. Particularly in the clothing industry, however, the demand for cheap clothing brings companies to use inhumane labor tactics and inexpensive labor in low-regulation areas despite the industry’s size and prevalence in everyday lives. Even large brands like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, and more have been accused of using child and/or trafficked labor 2. The goal of this whitepaper is to study the immoral human rights violations in the textile industry, including the economic and social costs of forced, child, and trafficked labor.
Largest textile producers and locations
Globally, China, Germany, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India are the largest textile and apparel exporters, and unethical labor occurs in all stages of the supply chain in many different locations. Different countries are known for their roles in different parts of the chain, enabling a more globally widespread usage of child and forced labor. In Southeast Asia alone, for example, the steps are as follows 3 :
- Cotton harvested in China
- Cotton spun into yarn in India
- Fabric cut and sewn in Bangladesh
- Processed in Sri Lanka
- Transported and sold in the UK
This variance in supply chain specialization is because of differing climates. For growing and harvesting, cotton requires moisture and soil temperatures at or above 64° F. These conditions are present in the Southern United States, East Asia, and sections of South America 4. These areas have many factories and well-suited supply chains for the textile industry.
Globally, there are an estimated 160 million child laborers 5. This global prevalence of child labor is especially noticeable in the textile industry. This is largely due to the recent rise of fast fashion. The demand for trendy yet inexpensive clothing leads brands to mass produce at the lowest possible cost, making child labor appealing. To meet this demand, factories hire recruiters to entice children and families. They convince parents of good wages, good accommodation, healthy meals, training, and schooling opportunities 6. Children are desirable due to their agility, as they are better at maneuvering than many adults, making them well-suited for work in clothing factories. They are also easier to exploit, and seen as “easy targets” 7.
Because they have less experience than adults, child laborers are also given lower wages, making them desirable to factories, because they give them a way to cut costs. In a BBC study of child labor in India’s cotton industry, for example, they found workers as young as 10 and 11 earning just over $2 for 12-hour shifts 8. However, this drives adult wages and employment down as well, since labor demand is being filled by children and adults must then remain competitive in the market to be employed 9. This decrease in adult wages, however, often hurts the families who sent their children off to work in the first place. In low-income nations, children need to work to support their families as the parents’ wages alone are not sufficient to support the family. This has long-term effects: working prevents children from attaining an education and earning a high income, meaning that their children too may have to work. In this way, the poverty cycle continues for future generations.
In addition to the high proportion of children in textile factories, the industry also has poor working conditions. The hours, for example, are typically 10-12 hours, sometimes going as high as 16-18 hours. Even after this time, employees often need to work overtime to supplement their low wages. However, oftentimes companies avoid paying for overtime by necessitating high hours, leaving workers without an option for additional pay 10. And since It is “estimated that less than 2% of the people who make the clothes on our bodies earn a living wage” 11. This concept of a “living wage” is an important one to distinguish between minimum and earned wages. A living wage is defined as a “wage that enables workers and their families to meet their basic needs” 12. In many nations and industries, there is a vast discrepancy between this living wage and the actual minimum wage, that unskilled workers receive. In Ethiopia, for example, the legal minimum wage in the garment industry is $26 per month, but the monthly living wage is $110 per month 13. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, interviewed clothing factory workers earned $197 per month but needed $481 to live, and in India they earned $92 but needed $190 14.
In addition to the low wages, laborers often have to endure inhumane working conditions. Many factories, for example, have no emergency exits or locked doors. This leaves workers at risk of severe injury in the case of an emergency, as they may be trapped indoors 15. These risks have been realized multiple times throughout history, but a recent example is the Ali Enterprises factory fire, which occurred on September 11, 2012 in Pakistan. The factory had barred windows and fully-locked doors. So, when a fire broke out, many were left to die. Some escaped by jumping from high, un-barred windows, but remained seriously injured. The fire resulted in over 250 deaths and 55 injuries. Other reasons for the high death toll included the factory’s lacking fire fighting equipment, the absence of working fire alarms, and its only one fire exit 16. In addition to these poor escape measures, factories often lack adequate ventilation and fainting is consequently common 18.
In addition to poor exit and emergency management materials, textile factories often involve dangerous chemical exposure that can pose serious threats to workers’ health. For example, carbon disulphide is critical in many textile factories as it is used to spin cellulose into viscose “fibers.” However, it can also lead to coronary heart disease and nervous system damage and leave workers’ health damaged for life 17. Another example is in polyester production, which uses antimony trioxide – a carcinogen that can increase risk to cancer 17. Finally, microplastic release from factories can contaminate local water 17. Because many workers live near their factories, this extends the health detriments outside their place of work to even their own homes, and it poses a risk to people who do not even work in the factory, but only live near it.
In addition to posing serious risks to workers’ health and using inhumane sources of labor, the textile manufacturing industry both exploits and exacerbates gender inequalities. According to one study, 80% of garment workers are female 19. A significant reason for this is that factory owners know that women are seen as “unequal” in their communities and therefore cheaper and easier to take advantage of as workers 20. Because of this view, women are often paid less as well – in the garment sector, there is an average gender pay gap of 18% in Asia and it is as high as 57.3% in Pakistan 21. This gender pay gap is especially disturbing when the socioeconomic and family statuses of girls and women are considered. For example, a study of female garment workers in Bangladesh found that most of them were less than 30, married, with 2-3 children, and illiterate or barely educated 22. In these kinds of circumstances, women need to be paid as well as their male counterparts to support their children. Furthermore, their illiteracy and poor education prevent them from turning to other higher-paying industries, essentially leaving them trapped in an underpaying position.
In their workplaces, women are often subjected to inhumane treatment by their employers. A study found that public “shame,” shouting, insults, and dehumanizing verbal abuse for even small mistakes were common in factories 22. And physical abuse – though less common than verbal abuse – is still present. Such abuse includes pushing, slapping, and more if workers make mistakes at work. In the face of such trauma, women are unable to protect themselves and stay silent out of fear that speaking out will only bring more abuse 22. Hence, women are scared but endure the poor conditions to support their families despite the low pay.
Efforts for Improvement
Despite the dire situation regarding labor exploitation in the garment industry, there are efforts for improvement. Various organizations like Clean Clothes Campaign, Labor Behind the Label, and Remake are working towards making a difference. They do so by protecting workers and advocating for rights like severance, fighting against wrongful termination, etc. They pressure brands to “pay factories for canceled orders” so that factories can pay workers more and give them better working conditions 23. Similarly, the BetterWork program is a collaboration between the International Labour Organization and International Finance Corporation to improve factories’ working conditions. It provides financial incentives to factories so that they can give workers better conditions, gives clothing brands compliance reports of suppliers and asks that they encourage factory improvements, and publishes non-compliance as an incentive for improvement 24.
The textile industry possesses various human rights violations including child and forced labor, which have severe social and economic costs. However, since clothing is necessary and demand is unavoidable, it is important to ensure that it is being sourced in a fair, socially-responsible, and sustainable manner to protect workers’ rights and their livelihoods. Spes Nova works with low-income economies to ensure that textiles and other goods are produced responsibly, giving US consumers access to humanely-produced clothing while also supporting developing economies.
1 “Global Textile Market to Reach $1.42 Trillion by 2030 at a CAGR of 4%.” PR Newswire, Cision PR Newswire, 12 July 2022, www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-textile-market-to-reach-1-42-trillion-by-2030-at-a-cagr-of-4-301584604.html#:~:text=The%20global%20textile%20market%20size,projected%20to%20drive%20market%20growth.
2 Jere, Mrunmayee, and Emilee Kain. “Fast Fashion Companies Guilty of Human Trafficking.” Our Future of Change, Our Future of Change, 17 June 2021, www.ourfutureofchange.org/post/fast-fashion-companies-guilty-of-human-trafficking.
3 Goldberg, Zak. “Your Product’s Supply Chain Hits More Countries Than You Realize.” SmallBizClub, 6 Mar. 2018, smallbizclub.com/run-and-grow/operations/products-supply-chain-hits-countries-realize/.
4 Cotton Insect Management Guide, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, cottonbugs.tamu.edu/development-and-growth-monitoring-of-the-cotton-plant/#:~:text=Cotton%20seed%20germination%20is%20favored,than%20100%20hours%20to%20emerge.
5 “Child Labour.” UNICEF, 9 June 2021, www.unicef.org/protection/child-labour#:~:text=Key%20facts,the%20impact%20of%20COVID%2D19.
6 Moulds, Josephine. “Child Labour in the Fashion Supply Chain.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, labs.theguardian.com/unicef-child-labour/.
7 Montessori, Maria. “Child Labour in the Fashion Industry.” Good On You, 7 Apr. 2021, goodonyou.eco/child-labour/.
8 Hawksley, Humphrey. “India’s Exploited Child Cotton Workers.” BBC News, BBC, 19 Jan. 2012, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-16639391.
10 “Working Hours and Overtime: 96-Hour Workweeks.” Clean Clothes Campaign, 29 Apr. 2013, cleanclothes.org/issues/working-hours.
11 “State of the Industry: Lowest Wages to Living Wages.” The Lowest Wage Challenge, www.lowestwagechallenge.com/post/state-of-the-industry.
12 “Living Wage: UN Global Compact.” Living Wage | UN Global Compact, www.unglobalcompact.org/what-is-gc/our-work/livingwages.
13 “Report: Ethiopia’s Garment Workers Are World’s Lowest Paid.” CNBC, CNBC, 7 May 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/05/07/report-ethiopias-garment-workers-are-worlds-lowest-paid.html.
14 Chua, Jasmin Malik. “Why Is It so Hard for Clothing Manufacturers to Pay a Living Wage?” Vox, Vox, 27 Feb. 2018, www.vox.com/2018/2/27/17016704/living-wage-clothing-factories.
15 “Working Conditions.” Labour Behind the Label, 19 Aug. 2020, https://labourbehindthelabel.org/our-work/working-conditions/ .
16 “Justice for the Ali Enterprises Victims.” Clean Clothes Campaign, 17 Jan. 2020, https://cleanclothes.org/campaigns/past/ali-enterprises.
17 Speranskaya, Olga. “Toxic Substances in the Life Cycle of Clothing.” D+C, Development and Cooperation, 13 May 2022, www.dandc.eu/en/article/many-workers-textile-and-garments-manufacturing-are-exposed-health-risks-they-do-not.
18 “Unsafe Workplaces.” Clean Clothes Campaign, 24 June 2020, cleanclothes.org/unsafe-workplaces#:~:text=Dangerous%20practices%2C%20such%20as%20the,high%20temperatures%20and%20repetitive%20motion.
19 “Fashion Is a Women’s Issue.” Fair Trade Certified, 17 July 2020, www.fairtradecertified.org/blog/fashion-is-a-womens-issue/#:~:text=One%20in%20six%20individuals%20who,of%20garment%20workers%20are%20female.
20 “Exploitation or Emancipation? Women Workers in the Garment Industry : Fashion Revolution.” Fashion Revolution, 2014, www.fashionrevolution.org/exploitation-or-emancipation-women-workers-in-the-garment-industry/.
21 Promoting Decent Work in Garment Sector Global Supply Chains. www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—protrav/—travail/documents/projectdocumentation/wcms_681644.pdf.
22 Akhter, Sadika, et al. “Sufferings in Silence: Violence against Female Workers in the Ready-Made Garment Industry in Bangladesh: A Qualitative Exploration.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, Women’s Health, 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6927197/.
23 Bramley, Ellie Violet. “Seven Ways to Help Garment Workers.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 July 2020, www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/jul/09/seven-ways-to-help-garment-workers.
24 “UN-Backed Programme Found to Improve Working Conditions in Global Garment Factories | UN News.” United Nations, United Nations, 26 Sept. 2016, news.un.org/en/story/2016/09/541002-un-backed-programme-found-improve-working-conditions-global-garment-factories.