What is slavery?
Slavery is a state where someone owns an individual as property and uses them for unpaid labor. Slaves have no free will: they are expected to obey their masters without question or complaint. Slavery, unfortunately, is not a new concept: history, as well as the Old Testament books of the Bible, recounts endless examples of slavery all around the world and in every century.
Frederick Douglass, a free black American, together with white supporters, led the movement to abolish slavery in Northern United States from the 1830s to the 1860s. Some of the abolitionists fought against slavery because of religious beliefs, while others believed that slavery was uneconomical.
Northern activists helped slaves escape from southern plantations to free states and Canada through the “Underground Railroad”. This secret series of safe houses helped between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves win freedom.
Modern day slavery
Although there was a movement to abolish slavery in the 19th century, it is still quite active today in several different forms. Some of these are forced labor, human trafficking, child labor, child marriages, and exploitation of migrant workers.
In order to provide for their families, women are forced into prostitution, and, to repay debts, children and adults are forced to work without pay on farms, factories, and in housing.
Slavery in fashion
Fashion may appear to be exquisite and posh, but slavery is a perennial problem. Forced labor in the fashion industry can happen at any level: from harvesting raw materials (such as cotton), to spinning fibre to yarn, to sewing the garments, to modelling the merchandise.
Due to the amount of participants in every level of manufacturing, large fashion brands have little control over the manner of production of raw materials from supply chains. Tracing and prosecuting illegal activities in sweatshops is difficult, due to the number of people involved. Thus, the exploitation of labourers goes by unnoticed, almost implicitly tolerated.
Needless to say, people are forced to work in subpar conditions because of poverty, lack of education, and missed opportunities. Unfortunately, the fashion industry takes advantage of the cheap cost of labor to meet the high demands of big brands, and, as a result, the workers are practically slaves.
A report released by the International Labor Organisation found that 170 million children are forced into constrained labor. Many of these children work making the fabric and garments required for manufacturers in Europe, the United States, and other places.
Child labor is so rampant due to the high market demand. Companies choose to have their clothes made overseas for cheap. According to the reports from the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), and the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), parents in rural areas are convinced by recruiters to send their children to work because of promises of reasonable wages, board and lodging, and school or training opportunities for their children.
An article by the Guardian revealed why children are specifically sought for work in the fields and in factories. Recruiters want children to work as cotton-pickers due to their small fingers. The cotton plant is less likely to be damaged by child-sized fingers. And children are taught to be obedient and dutiful, and, being small, they are easier to control than adults, which makes the employers more relaxed in their supervision.
However, cotton-picking is not suitable for children. The plants are drenched in insecticides, and the days are extremely long. Children laborers harvest, sow, and weed. Inside the factories, children under legal age dye clothes, sew buttons, cut and trim clothing, and place embroiders and sequins. Despite all of their hard work and long hours, they barely earn anything.
In this modern era, people should use technology to make the world be aware of the continuing existence of slavery. The workers must be aware of their rights and must know where to go whenever they feel that these rights are violated. Social media is a big avenue for spreading awareness about this issue, especially with the use of personal stories, which would make the situation real to those who can’t be bothered.
Clothing brands must take into account how their products are manufactured. Although they do not own the factories which provide them resources, they may use their influence in making the consumers aware of ethical and fair production. They must commit to suppliers who are tested to meet the required standards of labor practices.
As a consumer, it is not too late to be conscious to this issue. It would be a great help if users know what clothing brands are ethical in their treatment of their workers and which are not.