Workers’ rights advocates warn that the global fashion and retail industries rely on low-cost production of fast-turning goods through outsourcing and complex global supply chains, which have allowed forced labor to flourish, claiming to benefit from this model. Major fashion brands seem unwilling to change.
According to statistics, the apparel industry employs more than 60 million workers worldwide World Bank GroupAccording to the advocacy organization KnowTheChain, although 97% of fashion and retail brands have codes of conduct and corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards, such policies are ineffective in preventing forced labor and ensuring workers’ access to remedies.
KnowTheChain 2021 Apparel and Footwear Benchmark Report (PDF) Recently, 37 of the world’s largest fashion companies’ efforts to combat forced labor were ranked on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 representing best practices.
The organization found allegations of forced labor in the supply chains of 54% of the companies it surveyed.
Felicitas Weber, Project Director of KnowTheChain, told Al Jazeera: “For us, the industry’s average score is 41 points (out of 100), which constitutes a major failure in dealing with risks.”
The report also found that the world’s largest luxury brand is one of the most serious offenders in addressing the worse forms of exploitation in its supply chain, with an average score of 31 points (out of 100 points).
French luxury goods company Kering (owner of Alexander McQueen and Gucci brands) scored 41 points out of 100, while LVMH (owner of Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton brands) scored 19 points out of 100 points. Tapestry (owner of the Coach and Kate Spade brands), was evaluated for the first time this year and scored 16 points out of 100.
Kering, LVMH and Tapestry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Italian luxury fashion brand Prada scored only 5 out of 100 points in KnowTheChain’s benchmark test, and its score deteriorated over time.
But in a statement to Al Jazeera, Prada Group stated that it worked hard to improve its standards and challenged KnowTheChain’s methodology.
Prada claims that KnowTheChain does not take into account the fact that most of Prada’s factories are located in Italy, which enables it to closely monitor and resolve any misconduct or irregularities.
Although KnowTheChain’s discovery is shocking, it is not surprising to workers’ rights advocates.
Penelope Kyritsis, research director of the Workers’ Rights Union, a labor rights monitoring organization, told Al Jazeera: “Labour abuse is included in the supply chain model advocated by the clothing giant.
She explained that by constantly requiring suppliers to shorten turnaround times and lower prices, and intensify competition between supplier factories, fashion and retail brands make it difficult for factory owners to comply with labor laws and standards.
“The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated this dynamic when apparel brands tried to minimize the economic impact by suddenly canceling orders from supplier factories, which led to massive layoffs and pushed workers to the brink of poverty,” Kyritsis said .
For example, according to statistics, in Bangladesh, the second largest employer of garment workers after China, when fashion brands cancelled orders during the peak of the pandemic last year, more than 1 million garment workers (mainly women) were fired or temporarily Dismissal. Research (PDF) Conducted by the Global Workers’ Rights Center at Pennsylvania State University.
KnowTheChain told Al Jazeera that although it is not clear how many immigrant workers and refugees are employed in the apparel industry, they do make up the majority of the labor force in all regions.
For example, garment factories in Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan rely heavily on workers from neighboring countries, according to reports. Clean clothes exercise.
The clothing industry in Jordan is estimated to employ nearly 70,000 workers, of which 53,000 are immigrants. Global Industry Alliance It was discovered in 2019. According to statistics, the Brazilian textile industry in Sao Paulo is estimated to employ 300,000 Bolivian workers. Business and Human Rights Resource Center.
Immigrants are often more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because they are usually employed under informal agreements, lack documentation, or lack adequate legal protection.
“Immigrants sometimes have to pay up to a year’s salary as the cost of getting a job, so really [it’s] Very blackmail,” explains Weber of KnowTheChain. “We have seen more and more companies reimburse these expenses, but we need the company to significantly strengthen, not just a small step every year. “
Of the 28 retail and fashion companies that disclosed migrant workers’ policies in the KnowTheChain report, only two companies provided examples of the actual changes they took to resolve workers’ complaints. These grievances may include wage deductions, poor working and living conditions, intimidation, sexual harassment and threats.
According to KnowTheChain, although the ability to organize and challenge exploitative working conditions is crucial, it is reported that thousands of unionized garment workers have been fired due to union membership and organization during the pandemic.
“Understand and show” the supply chain
Weber said that, more broadly, companies in the industry need to be able to “understand and showcase” their supply chain-which means mapping and publishing the names of the suppliers they work with at all levels.
Anti’s business and human rights manager Chloe Cranston said that exploitative working conditions are thriving in countries with weak labor laws and enforcement, but many fashion brands in Europe and the United States continue to try to evade responsibility for what happens downstream in their supply chains. -Slavery International, tell Al Jazeera.
Cranston cited examples of products produced by members of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region using forced labor.
A recent report from Amnesty International record on file Uighur Muslims living in China have been subjected to mass imprisonment and systematic torture, including through first-hand information. Some of these descriptions detail forced labor and Uyghurs “required to live and work in factories.”
“Almost the entire fashion industry involves Uyghur forced labor, such as purchasing through yarn or cotton,” Cranston said.
On Tuesday, the U.S. released an updated business advisory Warn companies doing business in Xinjiang Because of the “increasing evidence” of forced labor in the region and other violations of human rights and “intrusive” surveillance, they face a higher risk of violating U.S. laws.
The administration of former US President Donald Trump banned all cotton products from the Xinjiang region of western China because they were accused of forced labor by detained Uyghur Muslims.The United States, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom also Sanctioned Chinese citizens accused of abuse.
“In the past year, we have seen some progress in this area, but the sad reality remains that the fashion industry has a long way to go to ensure that it does not become complicit in the crimes against humanity suffered by Uyghurs. ,” Cranston said.
She emphasized that fashion and retail companies have strong corporate powers, and they have a responsibility to ensure that the way they cooperate with suppliers, unions, and labor provides decent working conditions for people upstream and downstream in the supply chain-from those who harvest raw materials. Like people who go to the factory to spin cotton into fabrics.
Cranston said: “Try and guarantee slavery-free purchases should not be a burden on consumers.”