Fashion's Key Social Issues


Most of the world’s garments are made in Asia, and most of the workers who make them are not paid enough to live on - a ‘living wage’ - even when they get the legal minimum wage. 

There are various definitions of a ‘living wage’, but in general, the minimum legal wage in many garment producing countries are below what is considered neccesary to support a worker and their families at a low but decent standard of living. For example, according to the Living Wage Coalition in Bangladesh the current minimum wage can be as low as 40% of a ‘living wage’. In Cambodia and China the minimum wage, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, would need to be at least twice as high to cover the basic cost of living. 

More than 80 per cent of the workforce in Cambodia’s garment industry are women, aged 18 to 35. In India, Bangladesh and much of Asia most garment workers are women. Many are supporting children and families on their wages alone.

Not only do low wages keep garment workers in a cycle of poverty, but they also add to the pressure to work long overtime hours, affecting health and safety, and productivity.

Forced and bonded labour

The Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8 million people are living in modern slavery or forced labour today, many in the supply chains of clothing brands and retailers. According to this Index, 58% of people in slave labour are found in the major cotton or garment producing countries of the world –, China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Pakistan. In such contexts regulations do not exist, or are poorly implemented, and migrant workers and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to forced labour.

Forced labour can be difficult to detect. False promises of lump sum payments, comfortable accommodation or professional development in exchange for years of hard labour with no regular pay all constitute modern slavery or forced labour.

The UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act requires all companies with turnover of more than £36 million and operations in the UK to produce a public annual statement on steps taken each year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking do not occur in their business or supply chains 

Purchasing practices

The way orders are placed with suppliers can have a significant and systematic impact on working conditions along the supply chain. Attempts to cut costs in production by demanding cheaper prices from suppliers can have negative ripple effects on that supplier’s workforce. 

To meet the demand for lower costs, the supplier may sub-contract part of the order to another factory where standards may be much lower, without telling the buyer. 

Last-minute changes in an order can also pose problems for suppliers. Workers can be forced to work unpaid overtime or face intimidating demands to deliver last-minute changes. Some workers may not get paid at all if an order is cancelled at the last minute. 

International development and trade

Fashion has long been an important vehicle for development – at both local and international levels – helping countries climb the ladder of industrialisation towards wider growth, higher wages and broader skills bases.  (This has however often been on the back of labour exploitation, including slavery on US cotton plantations and poor working conditions in the UK mills of the industrial revolution.)  

Recent years have seen the greatest effect of the textiles and clothing sector on the economies of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) such as China, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

Textile and clothing production is a major contributor to gross domestic product (GDP) for these countries. Textile and clothing exports account for more than half of total manufacturing exports for several LMICs, bringing in much needed foreign exchange. 

Despite evidence of worker exploitation, this sector offers widespread and better paid employment than other manufacturing or agricultural jobs in several LMICs. Properly regulated, a healthy textile and clothing industry has the potential to provide jobs and lift people out of poverty.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Ethical Fashion Forum’s SOURCE Intelligence

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