Modern Slavery, Child Labour, and Unsafe Working Conditions – Welcome to Fast Fashion: 100 Days of Changing My Habits with Lamis Captan

Welcome back to the fourth instalment of 100 Days of Changing My Habits: Fast Fashion (FF) with Lamis Captan. For the last 100 days I have been examining the effects of fast fashion and abstaining from fast fashion purchases. This post will break down specifically how the FF industry is discriminatory towards the workers.

I know what you are thinking – slavery? Lamis, isn’t that a bit intense? Well, let me explain…Modern slavery is when a person is exploited and controlled through another person or organisation without the ability to leave, e.g. debt slavery and child labour. Debt slavery is a form of modern slavery in which a person’s labour is exploited to repay debt to a creditor. Cotton farming is strongly linked to debt slavery especially in South Asian countries and lead to many suicides amongst farmers.  This is because those in debt often aren’t given clear rules for repayment. Therefore it can continue, and has been found to carry on for generations. Even when workers aren’t in debt, Fashion revolution (2019) found that only 2% of the 40 million garment workers (there may be more, it is hard to pinpoint due to the corruption in the system) in the fashion industry are paid the living wage. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign most of the 80 million employees of the garment industry are denied pay which would lift them out of poverty. 

Child labour involves those under the age of 18 (or 15 depending on the region) being exploited through any form of work that deprives children of their childhood or interferes with their development. In FF garment workers tend to work in hazardous conditions, be exposed to commercial sexual exploitation and illicit activities – all factors which would deprive a child of their childhood. Many children who are working in garment production are disallowed education and receive little or no pay, and work overtime despite legislative rules. A 2018 US Department of Labour report found evidence of child labour in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam and others. Famously H&M utilise low-cost factories in Myanmar in which workers were found to pay as little as 13p an hour, half of the legal hourly wage. However, legally in Myanmar, children can legally be employed for up to four hours a day in these conditions from 14 years old – it’s time to make some noise and change some laws.

When H&M released a statement on their use of child labour they defended its legality and claimed the child’s income helps supports their families. But this ignores the physical and emotional toll on children working in unsafe, busy, conditions – and the fact that these children are forced to work to be able to feed their families. What about their education? How are these children are expected to come out of poverty if they aren’t earning enough or getting an education? Unfortunately, buying from the FF industry is helping to perpetuate this awful cycle for people who are forced into these circumstances. Despite being aware of Myanmar’s criminally low wage and child employment issues H&M still has 63 manufacturer and suppliers within the country alone. 

On top of workers being forced into work, employees usually work with no ventilation, breathing in toxic substances, inhaling dust or blasted sand in unsafe buildings. Accidents, fires, and injuries, and disease are very frequent occurrences on textile production sites. For example Jakub Sobik from Anti-Slavery International highlighted issues within the Ivy Park garment production. Specifically the women’s lack of movement, because they are locked into their accommodation after curfew overnight on-site. Additionally they lived in cramped conditions with zero kitchens, and they aren’t allowed to form a union to improve their unsafe conditions like in some developed countries.

In 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-floor factory building that contained several garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1000 workers and injuring more than 2500. But this wasn’t the first time this had happened. A fire at the Tazreen fashion factory (Dhaka) in 2012 took the lives of 117 workers. Another episode at Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan killed 254 people in the same year.

Due to COVID-19 many FF brands left many factories without payments, whilst posting about equality on their social media pages. On March 30th, 2020, Remake created a petition demanding FF to #PayUp as a response to reports from suppliers that “brands had cancelled in-production orders as a result of retail constriction following the outbreak of coronavirus” (Revolve, 2020). For example, for months Gap owed suppliers $19M. Meanwhile their executive compensation for 2019 was approximately $28M (Remake, 2020; Glass Lewis, 2020). “To be removed from the #PayUp petition, brands must promise to pay suppliers for all orders that were cancelled or paused as a result of coronavirus.” (Revolve, 2020). Successfully, on July 10th 2020 GAP was removed from the petition as they had agreed to pay their workers – showing the power of social media does work. Check out for more updates.

What can you do?

  1. Sign petitions from organisations such as @fashionrevolution and @cleanclothescampaign to create a better space and pay for garment workers
  2. Ask brands to be more diverse, inclusive, and to PAY UP
  3. Support POC-owned businesses that source their materials and apparel ethically
  4. Shop secondhand from your friends, Depop, eBay, etc
  5. Do not take personal sponsorship from brands who don’t pay their workers or allow their workers living in poor living conditions
  6. Spread the word on social media = use the hashtag #SayNoToModernSlavery, show off you’re cute outfits which aren’t from these brands, share facts and stats

How am I doing?

30 days into my challenge I am still feeling good! I was gifted some FF gift cards prior to this challenge, and I am in need of work clothes for this September. The urge to spend them is very real, especially as the money has already been spent essentially. But after writing all of this today… I am not sure I can happily wear a garment on my back which has been implicated in child labour. I’ll keep you guys updated!

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