Fashion industry workers (largely women) worldwide contribute millions of hours each year. Each piece of clothing requires a complex supply chain and the assistance of millions of garment workers (the vast majority being female). To reduce costs and stay competitive, many fashion brands have begun shifting production to low and lower middle income countries (LMICs), such as Bangladesh, India, China and Vietnam, where wages are more affordable. Fashion brands have taken advantage of this situation to produce massive quantities of clothes at an accelerated pace, while health and safety standards can often go overlooked in these factories. Garment workers in LMICs may be exposed to toxic chemicals, musculoskeletal hazards and respiratory issues; in addition they must work 14-16 hour days, seven days a week without overtime as overtime pay is mandatory.
Recent years have brought to light some horrific tragedies within the garment industry; Ali Enterprises Factory Fire in Pakistan in 2012 and Tazreen Fashions Collapse in Pakistan both happened simultaneously; Rana Plaza Collapse occurred later that same year in Bangladesh highlighting garment worker abuse, underpayment of minimum wages, as well as unsafe working conditions that threaten them daily. These tragedies have brought awareness to global audiences regarding abuse in this sector as well as poor working conditions which endanger workers lives every day.
These conditions include bladder infections and exhaustion from long working hours, lack of adequate maternity leave and unsafe abortion procedures, denial of pay rises and promotions, sexual harassment/assault/other forms of abuse. A low living wage compounded these issues further by forcing garment workers to work early just to support themselves financially – forcing them into poverty with no other options to escape its grip. This cycle leaves garment workers vulnerable to exploitation since there are few ways out.
Garment production has an enormously negative effect on the environment. Every garment requires significant energy consumption and many steps of its creation contribute to environmental damage, with heaps of fabric ending up in landfills or polluting water sources. Fashion’s continuous production and consumption also has an enormous effect on climate change; fashion accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions!
Fast fashion does not need to have negative repercussions. Garment worker advocates have been lobbying for increased transparency within the industry and encouraging consumers to adopt sustainable fashion practices. Our campaign against sandblasting led several brands to commit to discontinue it; but more work needs to be done – such as creating an enforceable agreement on labour standards for companies to take responsibility over their suppliers.
If we wish to create a sustainable and equitable fashion industry that respects garment workers’ rights, then we must reject the idea that fast fashion is acceptable. Aid and awareness campaigns are necessary, but they must be combined with action that ensure all garment workers enjoy safe work environments where they receive living wages.