Ethical Fashion: The Sweatshop Issue - Why Should We Care?

Ethical Fashion: The Sweatshop Issue – Why Should We Care?

With the world’s insatiable appetite for low cost, disposable clothing, designed to be worn for a season then discarded, the fashion industry is continuously under pressure to produce value for money clothing at any cost. It might not even occur to some of us that our well-meaning, thrifty purchases could be costing us, and others, much more than we think.

The recent economic downturn has led many people to cut their cloth in a more affordable way. For some, this has meant downshifting product choices when it comes to fashion, and choosing to shop in stores that offer the lowest prices.

In fact, the majority of high street fashion has, at one time or another, been accused of using sweatshops in the manufacture of their clothes and shoes, and with little control over a supply chain that conducts itself on the other side of the world, some retailers almost seem to have given in on the issue. But that doesn’t mean that the consumer has to, and with a number of alternative options available, it’s up to us to put our money where our mouth is and buy more sustainably.

What is a sweatshop?

As the name suggests, a sweatshop is not a very nice place. Imagine rows and rows of people, some as young as 14 (and in some countries even younger) working in cramped conditions, repetitively stitching a collar or sewing a button onto thousands of garments a day. It is common that these workers are forced to work shifts of 12 hours or more, often without a break for food or recreation, and made to take overtime at the weekends or out of hours to meet quotas, on punishment of losing their job if they refuse.

And the pain doesn’t end there.

Many of these workers sleep in nearby in employee housing that is owned and managed by their employer, and the conditions are just as bad there. Bare stone floors, no running water and no toilet facilities are common, so you can imagine these workers feel like its just one nightmare after another.

Some of these workers may not have even willingly started work at the company. Many are tricked into working in a factory, either through human trafficking or by being promised higher wages that never materialise. It is common that workers are held in debt to the sweatshop employer, either because they ‘owe’ money for their accommodation, or have been ‘loaned’ the cost of their training or uniform.

Why are there still sweatshops in the world?

With the fashion industry attempting to maximise their profits through lower production costs, the majority of garment manufacture is now conducted overseas, mostly in the poorest parts of the world. In the past decade, much has been done to promote the plight of these workers, with brands like Nike, Gap and Benetton repeatedly urged to tighten their policies and prevent sweatshops from operating in their supply chain.

Since then, the majority of big brand companies have taken steps to change policies and have attempted to review their supply chain to eradicate any child labour or sweatshop practices in their supply chain. As an example, Nike and Gap now publish the following policies:

  • All workers should have at least 1 day off in every 7

  • Zero tolerance of underage workers

  • No forced overtime

  • GAP require all workers to be at least 14, or the legal working age in their own country, and Nike require workers to be 16 or 17

All sounds great, and certainly progress, right?


In a BBC Panorama investigation aired in 2012, the programme discovered that despite the well-meaning intentions of these companies, the real situation was not improving at all, due to difficulties in policing the supply chain. They highlighted a factory in Cambodia, where the workers stated:

  • Overtime was constantly forced upon them. If they refused more than three times, they were fired

  • Living conditions were small wooden huts with 3 or 4 people to a room, no running water and regular power outages

  • Children as young as 11 or 12 are working on the production lines, because their families cannot afford to live without their wages

The problem is getting worse

A recent study by the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) agrees with the notion that the sweatshop industry is still alive and well, and named and shamed many popular brands who they stated were “routinely breaking every rule in the book when it comes to labour rights”.

It seems the issue is impossible to police, as many factories are tending to employ workers on temporary contracts or as day labour, thereby dodging all the usual requisites of sick and holiday pay as well as law abiding employment contracts. In one factory in the Philippines, 85% of workers were ‘temporary’, making it almost impossible for trade bodies to have any significant influence over the working practices there.

Of the 83 factories surveyed by ITGLWF, not one paid a living wage to the workers, and the majority didn’t even pay the legal minimum wage. Many workers get paid the equivalent of just 11p per hour, and overall it is estimated that the average percentage of the retail cost of a garment that goes to the people who made it is in the region of 0.4 – 4%.

And it’s not just the money

Sweatshops are incredibly harsh environments. With no air conditioning and cramped conditions typical, they are literally factory floors to make you sweat. Add to this the lack of health and safety at work, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster just waiting to happen.

Industrial accidents in sweatshops are common, with workers often harming themselves with the cutting or sewing equipment they are using. One worker, Zhou Shien Pin, moved to a factory from a remote corner of China, hoping to make enough money to build a house for his family. Just a few days into the job, he touched a high voltage wire that was exposed on the factory floor, and suffered burns to his face and chest, melting his toes right off. He was paid compensation, but the majority of the meagre £2,500 he received was swallowed up in medical bills.

The alternative?

If you disagree with the sweatshop industry, it may seem like there is no sure fire way of removing the likelihood of unethically produced clothing from your wardrobe. After all, even if the company has watertight policies on slave labour, how can you be sure the supply chain is adhering to their standards?

Fortunately there is another way.

Choosing ethically made clothing from local, reputable sources is one way in which you can let your cash do the talking and say ‘no’ to sweatshop labour.

As more people become interested in ethically produced clothing, a number of high quality based brands have sprung up all over the world, determined to fill the gap in the market and provide a stylish alternative to clothing produced overseas. Next time you need a new shirt or a new pair of jeans, consider where it came from and what the real cost of your purchase choice is.

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