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This is part one of a four-part series on Sustainable Fashion by our FFAC summer interns and mentees. You can read part 2, 3, and 4 here:
Part two: fast fashion and the environment
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Part three: fast fashion and health
Part four: five tips for shopping sustainably
For some of us, fashion creatively expresses our personality. Others simply wear whatever is available in their closet because they have to. You spend thousands of dollars on Prada to show off your brand new clothing around downtown. Ah, it feels good and comfortable to flaunt them, doesn’t it? Well, the worker who pieces together your clothes might not feel the same way.
According to the Daily Mail, a nonprofit organization known as KnowTheChain revealed that certain companies use recruitment agencies to hire workers, where employees in certain countries are required to spend “thousands of dollars in recruitment fees that are deducted from their salary”. If the fee is not completed, factories may require them to work and confiscate their passports or other important papers until the goal is met. According to the brand Patagonia, a company that aims to improve migrant worker conditions within their own company, their suppliers in Taiwan “charged up to $7,000” for potential employees to work in the fabric mills, “depending on the country they’re from and the labor brokers they signed up with”. You would expect these workers to form some kind of coalition to demand their rights but most factories do not allow the formation of worker unions. Some countries, such as Bangladesh, support this restriction “. There only 10% of the 4,500 garment factories have a registered union”.
Similar to many factory farming industries, these workers are treated as assets rather than humans who have families to care for. In most manufacturing countries such as Bangladesh and China, the standard minimum wage is approximately between “half to a fifth of the living wage,” which is supposed to support the necessities of housing, food, healthcare, and education. Additionally, garment employees work about “14 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week,” and may not clock out until “2 or 3 am to meet the fashion brand’s deadline”. They have no choice but to accept overtime work because resisting would mean risking their job.
Perhaps an even greater risk could be the permanent effect on their health. They often work with “no ventilation, breathing in toxic substances, inhaling fiber dust or blasted sand in unsafe buildings”. It is not rare that injuries, accidents, fires, diseases, and other disasters coincide at these factories. Sometimes, abuse from the employers can result in insults, no breaks and/or no drinking water. Such mistreatment of workers can also be observed in factory farming, where many workers are undocumented immigrants and healthcare is inaccessible.
Even now, forced labor has always been a problem. For example, over one million people in Uzbekistan are forced to leave their usual workplace and pick cotton during the season of autumn, including children who have to leave school to work. Even worse, 168 million children worldwide are part of child labor, a common theme seen in the fashion industry. 250,000 girls work in the Sumangali scheme, a system that allows low-income families to send their young girls to work for about three to five years in the textile industry for “a basic wage and an lump sum payment at the end to pay for their dowry,” where they sometimes become overworked.
Now that you know more about where your clothes come from, will you make a change? Are you still going to support fast fashion companies that abuse their workers or are you going to make ethical clothing choices? Essentially, it is up to all of us to create these changes, and purchasing less and protesting more are small steps for you to take to become part of the movement.
Rendabel Radian was an FFAC Summer 2020 intern and student at Columbia University.