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What is modern slavery? And how is it connected to the clothes we wear?

As far as I can tell, it’s 2019, and most people are under the assumption that slavery was abolished in Australia and the USA almost 200 years ago. Right? Sadly, it’s more complicated than that. 

‘Modern Slavery’ refers to any circumstance in which someone is subject to threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, preventing them from leaving their workplace. 

According to ‘The International Labour Organisation’, roughly 21 million people worldwide are forced labourers, half of them in the Asia-Pacific region. Unfortunately, it’s not just some dystopian fever dream. 

The complexity and lack of transparency in global supply chains makes it difficult for consumers to determine which products utilise slave and child labour at some point in their production. 

It’s not just modern slavery we have to worry about, either. 

There are other human rights violations occurring in the fashion industry such as denial of freedom of association and denial of worker safety.

Both of which are conditions that workers in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh experienced when their factory collapsed in 2013, and more than 1,000 people died.

And the other problems textile workers face?

  • Lack of building regulations
  • Lack of job security
  • Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse 

So why are we just talking about it now?

More and more, the inhumane treatment of manufacturers is under the spotlight, with factory disasters receiving global media coverage and technology allowing for the rapid distribution of photos from incidents that are too heartbreaking to ignore.

Since the Rana Plaza disaster, hundreds of workers have lost their lives in textile industry tragedies such as the Tampoco and Multifabs factory fires in 2016 and 2017.

Four million Bangladeshi’s work in dangerous conditions, without sufficient labour protections or a living wage. A phenomenon due to the demand for cheaper and rapidly produced clothing in western countries.

Who is to blame for these issues?

Roughly 80% of South Asia’s export earnings come from foreign retail companies, including H&M, Primark, Walmart, Tesco and Aldi. Many of these companies run on a model of mass production and low cost. 

Australian retail brands are beneficiaries of these practices. And recent findings by Oxfam Australia have exposed a “systemic failure to ensure payment of wages that are enough for people to afford even the basics of a decent life.” 

Some of these brands have recently claimed to be strengthening their commitment to liveable wages. This is a positive step and a clear indicator that public outrage is an incentive for corporate reform.

In late 2018, the Bangladesh government announced a pay raise for mid-level factory workers. Protesters claimed that it was not enough of an improvement as it excluded a large section of workers.

More than 11,000 manufacturers, including some operating for H&M, were dismissed from their jobs as a result of these complaints. They were among a cohort of workers responsible for the export of $30bn worth of apparel last year. 

Commerce Minister for Bangladesh, Tipu Munshi pointed out that some of the corporations reliant on these factories had failed to follow the industry guidelines.

There was a regulatory body in charge of safety inspections at these workplaces, but the Bangladeshi court later dismissed its European firms from conducting these assessments.

Are the factories responsible?

It would be easy for us to point the finger at the companies running these factories and subjecting their workers to such conditions. However these companies are a product of the market conditions in which they operate.

As Judy Gearhart from the International Labor Rights Forum puts it: “If one factory owner agrees to produce jeans for $2, then another can’t charge $2.50, or they’ll lose business. 

“In a sense, we are all fuelling the race to the bottom, but it’s the largest, most successful brands that are driving themselves and the competition the hardest.”

What role do customers play in the supply chain?

Studies show that Millennials are more likely to vocalise their support for sustainability than to modify their consumer behaviour.

Ziauddin Ahmed, chief operating officer at Bangladeshi factory, Viyellatex, claims that customers have the power to change this corrupt system. “When customers say, ‘I will only buy a sustainable product that has been made responsibly,’ the entire supply chain will change, because of the market rules. It is the customer who is the king.”

Labour Behind the Label director Anna McMullen proposed that the government could intervene by asking companies to label which factories are responsible for manufacturing their products. Approaches such as this one may give fast fashionistas the opportunity to reflect on where their money is going and hopefully, change their consumer habits.

What is the fashion world doing to help solve the problem? 

Multi-national companies have an inconsistent record when it comes to ethical targets. In 2013, H&M committed to delivering a “fair living wage” that would reach 850,000 workers within five years. Then in 2018, this statement was amended to make way for the less impressive pledge of “improved wage management systems” for 50 per cent of suppliers.

That same year, the conglomerate behind Topshop, Miss Selfridge, and Dorothy Perkins decided to start paying factories 2 per cent less for failing to perform as well. This decision they attributed to industry skewed toward online commerce websites. 

So how do we clean up this mess? And do we all have a role to play?

It’s clear that the supply chain problem is a two-way street. Retail companies’ continue to lower the benchmark because the deal-hunting customers demand it; feeding the race to the bottom.

Brands can influence customers to change their habits by marketing around the value of ethical fashion and showcasing the critical role it plays in all our lives. 

At the same time, Customers can affect brands by posing a demand for ethical clothing and a willingness to pay a little more than below the line for quality and peace of mind. 

Living Wage benchmark and Slavery laws

The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that only one in five victims of modern slavery are detected.  

Dominique Muller, director of policy at Labour Behind the Label claims that “brands puff up their corporate social responsibility and on the other hand, when it suits them, do the opposite in terms of producing standards.” 

Thankfully, governments and law-makers are finally taking steps to ensure corporations are accountable for labour crimes.

Last year, the Modern Slavery Act passed in Aussie parliament (following the UK’s implementation of it in 2015), and it was made effective at the beginning of 2019. 

The laws require large businesses to provide information for reviewing their supply chains for the risk of modern slavery. 

The first reports are due by 2020 and will be available on a public register. This information being shared with the public may serve an important secondary purpose: a marketing tool. While customers are watching, businesses will be incentivised to prove their supply chains are ethical and sustainable.

However, this method is far from perfect. Independent oversight of supply chain practices should be the next step forward for the industry, and actual consequences for brands that don’t adhere to the rules (under the current legislation, there is no financial penalty for companies who fail to submit the report).

The pathway to a future of responsible fashion is long and paved with significant challenges. Excitingly, there are change makers among us, armed with ideas that might inspire customers and brands to transform the industry into the one we want it to be, one thread at a time.

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