Human Trafficking in Fashion


Today I am delighted to bring you a guest post on the topic of human trafficking by Stephanie Hepburn. Stephanie is well qualified to write this post for us, she is an independent journalist whose work has been published in the Guardian, Americas Quarterly, USA Today U-Wire, the Times-Picayune and the journal Gender Issues. She has written two books on human rights, Women’s Roles and Statuses the World Over and Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight. In October 2014, she founded the online ethical clothing boutique Good Cloth, which specializes in pieces that are good for workers, the planet and the consumer. I am sure you will find her post today very informative.

Human Trafficking in the Garment Industry

Since the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh two years ago, there has been a greater spotlight on the issue of transparency in the garment industry. Much like the slow food movement, consumers are starting to ask questions about where and how garments are made. Even so, human trafficking is rarely discussed in this analysis. This is because, for most people, the term human trafficking conjures up images of young women forced into the commercial sex industry — not children, men and women trafficked into the garment industry. It’s true that sex trafficking is a horrendous worldwide issue, but what is less known is that forced labor is much more prevalent. In fact, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that of the estimated 21 million people trafficked, nearly 79% are victims of forced labor.

The garment industry as a whole, unfortunately, has been an ideal setting for human trafficking. The supply chain in the industry has long been shrouded in secrecy for the benefit of brands and retailers, at a devastating cost to workers. It has all the key elements for a perfect storm of forced labor such as un- and under-regulation, complicity and corruption on the part of companies and government officials, vulnerable marginalized populations and unscrupulous people who sweep in when given opportunity.

Under the Radar 

Tuomo Poutiainen, program manager at the ILO office in Bangladesh, says that in order to minimize the risk of exploitation and trafficking in the garment industry, brands and retailers must choose production partners that can illustrate their compliance with regulations. There may be additional economic costs, he says, for structural investments and inspection programs, but companies must strike a balance between securing basic rights for workers and competitiveness. Poutiainen says apparel companies have varied in their responses to the increased spotlight on worker rights. “No two companies are the same,” Poutiainen says. “Some apparel companies have built their brands on tracking and tracing their supply chain. They want to investigate and minimize risk. Other brands and retailers aren’t investing or auditing and aren’t really concerned.”

The majority of top apparel brands such as H&M, Marks and Spencer, Nike, Adidas and Gap source their products from factories in nations where there is low cost entry into industrialization in order to maximize their bottom line. Outsourcing and subcontracting has made an already complex supply chain more confusing and difficult than ever to monitor. The result is that a multitude of factories that make our brand name clothing are under the radar. Meaning, the brands and retailers themselves may have no idea that the work has been subcontracted, making monitoring next to impossible. By outsourcing work to subcontractors, factories are able to bypass labor law provisions that govern mandatory days off and overtime pay. The issue of subcontracting is so pervasive that in Cambodia nearly a third of all its factories use short-term contracts (called fixed-duration contracts, FDCs) to avoid paying maternity and seniority benefits.

Earlier this year Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that a direct supplier to H&M subcontracted work to a smaller factory in Cambodia that employed children less than 15 years of age. The child and adult laborers were not permitted to refuse excessive overtime and were not paid overtime wage rates. H&M representatives told HRW that starting this year it would require suppliers to adhere to the Arbitration Council ruling on the use of short-term contracts, which includes that short-term workers are eligible for the same benefits as regular workers after they have worked 21 days for 2 consecutive months. Failure to do so, H&M told HRW, would be treated as a violation of the brand’s Code of Conduct and factored into internal audits.

A common question posed by readers when they hear similar stories, is “Why didn’t the workers leave or unionize?” Aside from the obvious answers of not wanting to lose their jobs or that the children were scared, the workers said they were fearful of retaliation if they did not comply with employer demands. Unfortunately, retaliation is not uncommon and includes non-renewal of contracts, wage deductions and non-payment.

Sadly, exploitation in the garment industry is commonplace. Workers often face unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, denial of maternity benefits, pregnancy discrimination, denial of sick leave, lack of breaks and retaliation if they refuse to comply with employer demands. The government-determined wages in the garment industry are typically egregious, a mere fraction of a living wage. The Center for American Progress reported in 2013 that garment workers earn 36 percent of a living wage in China, 29 percent in Indonesia, 22 percent in Vietnam and 14 percent in Bangladesh (even after the collapse and the subsequent wage increase, garment worker in Bangladesh are among the lowest paid in the textile industry). These are four of the main apparel exporters in the world. Wages do not cover basic needs such as clothing (ironically), food, rent, healthcare, transportation or education.

Not all labor exploitation rises to the level of human trafficking but it can easily do so through nonpayment of wages, delayed payment, withholding of passports, long work hours, exorbitant fees for recruitment (creating debt bondage), punitive withholding of payment for noncompliance, forced overtime, unsafe working conditions, unsanitary living conditions, and verbal and physical abuse. Victims are women, men, girls and boys.

One of the most vulnerable populations to exploitation and trafficking are children. In New Delhi alone, it is estimated that 50,000 children work in factories. Not all are garment workers, but it gives a glimpse into what happens when brands and retailers source from poor nations with marginalized populations, nominal resources, un- and under-regulation and inadequate enforcement.

The NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) has worked tirelessly with police to rescue more than 83,500 victims of trafficking in India, including numerous victims forced to labor in garment industry, often lured under the guise of learning a trade. In a single raid in 2013, BBA and police rescued 23 trafficked boys — ages 7 to 15 — from a clothing and purse factory in New Delhi. Unfortunately, this is only a small fraction of the nearly 100 children that worked at the factory. Most were gone by the time police arrived because someone had tipped off the employer before the raid took place. The children each earned a nominal $.24 U.S. (15 INF) for 15 hours of work under deplorable conditions. 

Government Complicity and Corruption

Ultimately, says Poutiainen, the responsibility lies with governments to comply with their own laws. One hurdle is the desire of governments of poor nations to be the landing pad for brands and retailers, so much so that they turn a blind eye to or are complicit or corrupt in un- or under-enforcement of labor regulations. In China, some government-sanctioned work-study programs are simply a veiled means to supply school children to factories for forced labor. As horrendous as this sounds, it is not uncommon. The children face dangerous conditions, excessive hours and mandatory overtime. In one particular case, children were allegedly forced through a government transfer program to work in the Longfa Shoe Factory in China’s southeastern Guangdong Province, which is owned by Taiwan-based Dean Shoes Co. Ltd., a supplier of footwear to Nike, Inc. Spokespersons for both Longfa Shoe Factory and Nike denied the allegation that underage workers were being used and said hiring underage workers would violate company policies. The families of the children tell a different story. A father of one of the underage girls working in the factory said his daughter was forced by government officials to swap identification with her older sister. Officials told him that if he resisted having his 16-year-old daughter work for the program, the government would cancel his government poverty aid.

Forced labor doesn’t just exist in the production of apparel and accessories, but also in the mining of precious metals and gems and the picking and making of materials such as cotton. Children and adults are forced to labor on farms in the cotton sector in Benin, Tajikistan, Togo and Uzbekistan, the world’s fifth largest cotton exporter. In Uzbekistan, the government forces more than a million of its citizens, including children, to harvest cotton each year under abusive conditions and threat of punishment for noncompliance.

Poutiainen says that part of the reform process is to have a strong worker voice. He says that in order for real change to occur, “garment workers must be allowed to become real negotiating partners.” Unfortunately, unionizing and protesting governments for change in the garment industry can be incredibly dangerous for garment workers. In Cambodia, a significant exporter to nations worldwide and eighth largest exporter to the U.S., a protest last year turned deadly when municipal and military police shot AK-47s and handguns into a crowd of demonstrators. The garment workers and unions began sit-ins on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to pressure the government to increase the minimum wage to $160 a month. Police killed at least four people and injured more than 29 — most of the victims were garment workers.

Poutiainen says the spotlight on the textile industry since the Rana Plaza building collapse has created consumer demand for change in the treatment of garment workers and increased brand/retailer transparency. While reminiscent of the momentary media focus on sweatshops in the 90s, Poutiainen says this time is different because of the role of social media. “The speed of information has been transformed by social media,” Poutiainen says. “If something goes wrong, the world automatically knows about it. It’s true that the maltreatment of workers is not new, but consumers are letting brands and retailers know that they need to take the issue more seriously.”

There may be more awareness among consumers but whether it will alter their purchasing decisions remains to be seen. The garment industry got to this point because in the past twenty years the fashion supply chain has become increasing complex with numerous moving parts and competing financial interests. Outsourcing production to poor nations and producing in large bulk has allowed brands and retailers to create lower and lower prices. In turn, customers expect low prices for clothing, creating demand, which brands and retailers then supply. It seems that in many ways the fashion industry has hindered itself by setting up cost expectations for consumers that will be next to impossible to maintain if workers are paid at fair wages and regulations are adequately enforced. Consumers, regardless of increased awareness on worker conditions in the garment industry, continue to expect clothing at incredibly low costs. We often fail to connect the dots between labor exploitation in the garment industry and our own cost expectations for clothing. As we consumers flip through racks of the newest clothing trends, excited by their immense bargain prices, we should take a moment to think about how these items came to be, why the costs are so very low and who made them. If we don’t like the answers we should move on to brands and retailers that offer transparency and ensure adequate treatment of workers.


Thanks to Stephanie for her very informative exploration of the role of human trafficking and forced labour in the fashion industry. If want hear more from Stephanie and you are interested in human trafficking-free shopping, visit her online store or  you can connect with her on TwitterFacebookInstagram and Pinterest.



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