Who made my clothes?

Marcus is a volunteer for a non-governmental organization (NGO) that supports labour unions. He decided to travel to some developing nations that face issues of forced labour and the mistreatment of workers.

Mei is an experienced tailor from a developing nation and considers herself to be blessed to have found a job that pays above average. However, after some time she was coerced into signing a contract that does not allow her to leave the facility premises and she will only get paid after her contract expires. Until then she is ‘charged’ for the food and shelter she is provided.


Who makes our clothes?

Official figures show that more than 90% of everything we wear in England comes from abroad. In the US, according to the film True Cost, the figures are similar. Most of these imports are from emerging markets, where millions of workers produce our clothes. Like Mei, there are many skilled workers in developing nations that have ended up in the hands of powerful local companies for which they are forced to work, and have no way to break free. Developing nations usually have certain characteristics that inevitably will affect their citizens such as lack of education facilities, inadequate healthcare, and limited work opportunities.

The apparel industry will always be a popular market segment where companies will fight hard to gain competitive advantage and maximize profits. Many corporate scandals have been reported showing the poor living and working conditions of workers in developing nations. Western clothing retailers are only willing to implement voluntary codes of conduct, whereas powerful lobbies continually argue against legislation to limit or eradicate forced labour practices or human rights abuses.

Marcus met many helpless workers whilst volunteering, including Mei. He wanted to help workers by teaching them that labour unions exist to improve their lives. He convinced workers to tell him their stories so that he could help them through his NGO. Mei told him every time workers try to protest or to create a union, employers physically punish them.

How does forced labour affect a workers life?

The Global Slavery Index report (2016) states that there are currently 45.8 million individuals that are in some form of slavery in 167 countries. Forced slavery is not categorized into gender or age as it affects all population groups, however some are more vulnerable than others; woman and children tend to be more targeted than men.

According to the United Nations, many families in emerging markets work in shameful environments and cannot afford the cost of living. Parents end up sending their children off to work or selling their child to human traffickers to be able to afford necessities. Harsh working conditions can affect children by causing health problems, impacting a child’s development (mentally, physically and academically), and denying basic rights. The Human Development report from the United Nations states that disadvantaged backgrounds, minority groups and abandoned children end up with no protection or solution to escape their ill-fortune. Many children transition from child labour into forced labour which inevitably leads to a cycle of enslavement and poverty.

Employers can dominate their workers and limit transparency so that NGOs and governments can’t help. A report by the International Labour Organisation shows that forced workers who have no freedom are continuously afraid of being sold, abused, threatened, starved, and forced to work until they become sick. These workers are constantly dealing with physical and mental abuses.

Marcus will help unionise the workforce at Mei’s company. This will not be easy and with a past history of violence, this may even be dangerous. With the NGO’s help the likelihood of success is higher; however Marcus’ NGO can only help so many groups of workers, due to their limited resources. So most workers will be unable to unionise, and unable to fight for their rights.


What can workers do to better their lives?

The United Nations states workers’ ability to organize unions can affect the protection of labour standards positively. It can be difficult for workers to discuss issues at the workplace with their supervisors. If all workers speak with the same voice they are more likely to be heard. Labor unions can help eliminate forced labour through greater transparency and a clear presence within the worker ranks. By entering a union, workers are ensured of a safer workplace, reduced wage inequality and forced labour issues can be tacked.

Amnesty International says raising awareness alone can make a difference. Labour unions should create awareness campaigns that attract the attention of nonprofit organizations. NGO’s can help unions because they have the power to influence the media, organizations, governments and individuals. For example, trade unions can take the initiative to review whether their government enforces key international standards that prohibits forced labour. Once this information has been obtained, NGO’s can put pressure on governments to provide a legal framework that prohibits and punishes forced labour as an essential component in its eventual abolishment.

Buying clothing may not have a great impact on the consumer, but it could have an enormous impact on workers’ lives. We can guarantee you that our workforce receives the necessities. They do not face poor living or working conditions and are treated with respect. We take responsibility for our actions.


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About the Author

Valentina is passionate in expressing her voice through her writing, which she hopes will have a social impact. She grew up as a third culture kid that always fought for what is right and achieved a BA Hons. in International Business in order to understand the business world more clearly and leave a possible mark on society. Currently she is working for an ethical start-up company called Chanzez. Chanzez has been set up to provide people with chances whether they are people who design clothes, people who work to make clothes or people who want to be able to buy ethically produced clothes.

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