Fast Fashion, Slow Commitment: Fashion Brands and Human Rights in the Garment Industry

Image by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

By Katie McMillan

In a society wherein overconsumption and influencers’ fast fashion ‘hauls’ perpetually receive critique from climate activists (and rightfully so), it is hard to be ignorant of the negative environmental effects of fast fashion. It does seem, however, rather easy to forget that this is only one segment of the negative consequences produced by fashion brands. With some companies releasing thousands of new items daily, many are now wondering: Where do all these clothes come from? Unfortunately, the answer is not as pretty as the items we are purchasing.

As I write this, it has been almost exactly nine years since the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed at least 1,132 people and left another 2,500 injured. To this day, up to 77% of the now unemployed survivors are unable to work as a result of mental and/or physical injuries obtained during the collapse. Yet due to no legal obligations being set out for companies, most of those affected received little compensation after the incident. In the years following this tragedy, multiple internationally signed Accords were established – the most recent in August 2021 – which aim to improve safety for garment workers and hold the fashion brands, who are supplied by such factories, accountable. In signing these accords, brands are committing to uphold worker rights, improve working conditions, and disclose their supplier factories. The fulfilment of this commitment, however, has been extremely slow, and many brands are yet to sign the most recent accord.

Unfortunately, the commitment of most brands to improving working conditions seems to stop at the singing of Accords. Whilst these large companies make millions of dollars in profit daily, over 90% of brands do not pay their garment workers a living wage. This leaves many workers, who already live in impoverished conditions, unable to afford basic necessities. Often working for a minimum of 12 hours a day, and sometimes up to 24 hours, many garment workers receive no official payslip and, in fact, one month’s earnings is sometimes not enough to pay for even one of the garments that they produce. These conditions only worsened in 2020 with the COVID-19 outbreak. At the beginning of the pandemic, fashion brands made mass cancellations and refused to pay for orders that had already been made. Subsequently, many factories had little choice but to scale back operations or close down completely, leaving garment workers with reduced hours or unemployment. So, whilst the CEOs of these multimillion-dollar companies likely spent lockdown in the comfort of one of their many luxurious homes, their garment workers across the globe were thrown into situations of extreme precariousness, sometimes with no income and no way of providing for their families.

Garment workers are not voiceless victims, however, and have not simply suffered in silence. Just one year after the collapse of Rana Plaza, pleas for help were believed to have been made by Bangladeshi garment workers, as ‘secret’ messages, reading “Degrading sweatshop conditions” were found sewn into Primark items of clothing. Unsurprisingly, the company tried to pass this label off as a ‘hoax’, denying accountability and saving face. Similarly, messages were found in Zara clothing in 2017, with workers claiming that the company had not paid them. This time, the messages were confirmed as real by the garment workers themselves. One may think, then, that if not willing to create a change in the name of human rights, brands would at least create positive change to save their reputation. Though signing Accords is one thing, there is no doubt that these brands have the power to do more. Yet, unfortunately, conditions remain perilous.

Just when it seems it cannot get any worse – with dangerous working conditions, inhumanely long hours, and insufficient wages – it does. The abuse of garment workers, the majority of whom are female, occurring in these factories is rife. In 2018, with supervisors feeling immense pressure from buyers (I.e., fashion companies) to mass produce products in short time periods, over 540 workers across two factories reported incidents of abuse, including verbal, physical, and sexual violence. These abuses are daily occurrences and have not improved in more recent years. Only last year, a 21 year-old woman was murdered by her supervisor, who had been sexually harassing her for months prior. A few weeks later, numerous other women reported abuse in the same factory, which is the top supplier for the massive fashion brand H&M. Although it took them over a year to do so, H&M have since signed a legally binding agreement to tackle gender-based violence within the garment industry. The fashion brand, however, is the first to sign such an agreement. Without further signatories of this and agreements alike, such abuses will continue to go unaddressed, and more workers lives will be put at risk.

Consideration of these harmful conditions, inhumane hours, inadequate wages, and vicious abuses provides only a glimpse into the human rights horrors of the garment industry. The fast fashion industry continues to grow, and brands will continue to profit from the misery of the workers in their supply factories. Some brands may have signed Accords, but history shows that this is not enough – the lives and livelihoods of garment workers remain at risk. The responsibility is not that of individuals, but we can and should take action. We must put pressure on brands: ask them to be more transparent about their supply chains, call for them to pay up, ask who made your clothes. Thanks to campaigns and groups such as Labour Behind the Label, War on Want, Clean Clothes Campaign, Good Clothes Fair Pay, Fashion Checker, and Fashion Revolution, it’s as easy as the click of a few buttons.

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