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Workers’ rights in the clothing industry and what consumers can do

The global clothing industry is notorious for its exploitative working conditions. 

We take a detailed look at the conditions workers face and profile some campaigns you can get involved with to help bring about change.

For years, garment workers have reported everything from wage theft to anti-union violence. Brands have spoken out about improving conditions.

But with the Coronavirus pandemic, conditions for many hit an all time low, with workers facing an “unrelenting combination of job loss, unpaid wages, unsafe conditions, and harassment at work,”  according to Khalid Mahmood from the Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan.

So what are the key workers' rights issues in the industry, and what needs to be done?

Workers’ rights abuses in the clothing industry

Below we look at a number of abuses, from low pay and harassment to forced labour and union busting.

Poverty Wages

In many garment-producing countries the national minimum wage, if it exists, is set far lower than what is actually required to cover basic requirements like food and housing. For example, in Bangladesh the minimum wage for garment workers is $94 per month, whereas the living wage is estimated to be $569 per month.

Khalid Mahmood says that in Pakistan, “Women workers are routinely paid less than men for work of equal value or are employed in roles with lower piece rates than male colleagues.”

But the problem isn’t only seen abroad. In recent years, investigations have found illegally low wages in garment factories in the UK, predominantly in Leicester. Whilst most brands have moved their manufacturing elsewhere due to the allegations, campaign group Labour Behind the Label says that fast fashion brand Boohoo remains.

“Industry sources state that it is impossible to produce the units/garments requested by Boohoo for the product price while still paying workers the national minimum wage of £8.72 per hour,” according to the group. “Wages as low as £2-3 per hour are allegedly commonplace in Leicester factories supplying Boohoo and other online retailers.”

These low wages leave garment workers around the world with next to no option to save, meaning they have no safety net in the case of illness, job loss or any other personal crisis.

And new research in 2023 by Transform Trade, accuses brands including Primark, H&M, Next, Lidl, Tesco, Aldi and Zara of paying suppliers in Bangladesh less than the cost of production, making it near impossible for factories to meet national minimum wage standards. The allegations come from a survey of more than 1,000 factories in the country. Most of the companies mentioned denied the allegations.

Video: Should we boycott fast fashion brand Boohoo?

Insecure Employment

Workers in the garment industry often do not have permanent contracts, can be fired without notice, or have to search for different work each week.

In 2020, The Guardian reported that at one of the biggest garment factories in Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho, “managers never hired enough regular workers to complete the clothing orders that flooded in from Europe and the US. Instead, every morning, a few hours after the sewing machines had started whirring, a male supervisor would stroll out to the factory gates where dozens of women waited. These women were known as the “dailies” – unemployed cutters and machinists who went from factory to factory looking for a few hours of casual work.”

Garment manufacturing has relied on a large, disposable workforce to keep labour standards low and prices down. In many places, it employs a large migrant population who have moved to the city from the countryside and are in desperate need of work.

Such insecure workers are often unable to unionise, speak out about conditions or otherwise take action. If they do so, they can risk being fired or even blacklisted from all local factories.

In Pakistan, with COVID-19, the situation got even worse, according to Mahmood. “Mass lay-offs, in combination with workers facing extreme financial difficulties during the lockdowns, have resulted in a growing fear of job losses. Workers who are desperate to stay employed are forced to endure poor treatment from supervisors and management. Verbal abuse and harassment have increased.”

Sexual Assault and Harassment

Women garment workers in particular can face widespread abuse.

When The Guardian reported on conditions for Lesotho workers in 2020, it found that many women who sought work in the garment factories had to “endure repeated harassment and sexual assault to secure a daily wage of just over £6 a day.”

Mahmood likewise says that gender-based harassment “is common” in almost all the factories in Pakistan. “Supervisors often use abusive language, and target women workers if they refuse their offers of ‘friendship’.

He says that women have few options to speak out. “Complaining is seen as counterproductive, as management will often dismiss the complainant along with the perpetrator, saying that she must have done something wrong to invite this kind of behaviour."

Khalid Mahmood speaking at garment workers rally
Khalid Mahmood - Image courtesy of Clean Clothes Campaign

Union Busting

Some garment workers have few options to join a trade union. Their insecure work means that if they organise they risk getting fired or being refused work.

In October 2022, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre published a report based on interviews with 24 trade union leaders and a survey of 124 union activists and labour activists in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It found that over 60% of survey respondents said that situation for freedom of association and collective bargaining had “got worse” since the pandemic. Almost half said they’d seen a rise in issues such as intimidation and harassment of trade union members.

Without the right to unionise, Mahmood says, “workers have little hope of improving their working conditions.”

Forced Labour

Sweatshop workers are not the only ones facing serious violations in garment supply chains. Forced labour has been identified in several cotton-growing regions.

The Uyghur Region in China produces one fifth of the world’s cotton. Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities have been subjected to a forced labour campaign by the Chinese government. They are forced to attend ‘re-education’ facilities, where there have been reports of forced sterilisations and other abuses. Half a million workers have then been forced into employment in cotton fields supplying to global garment companies.

Workers in Turkmenistan also face state sanctioned forced labour, with young workers from many industries being forced by the government to pick cotton for the harvest each year. In Spring 2022, it was announced that Uzbekistan had ended forced labour in its own cotton industry.

Read more on the situation for Uyghur Muslims in our article Should we boycott 'Made in China'?

Person working in cotton fields in Uzbekistan
Working in cotton fields in Uzbekistan. Image (c) Anti Slavery International

Unsafe Conditions

Factory conditions in the garment industry are notoriously unsafe. In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,133 people and critically injuring thousands more, making it the deadliest garment factory disaster in history.

Ten years on, Khalid Mahmood says that health and safety measures are still “non-existent” in smaller factories in Pakistan.

From the processing of hide for leather, to the dyes for other fabrics, garment workers are also exposed to a host of toxic chemicals.

The Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry

After the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, The Accord on Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry was created, commonly referred to simply as ‘the Accord’.

The Accord is an independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to work towards a safe and healthy garment and textile industry in Bangladesh and is generally seen as the gold standard for safety. 220 brands signed the first five-year accord, leading to significantly safer working environments for millions of garment workers in Bangladesh.

After the new International Accord came into effect in September 2021, brands faced widespread calls from NGOs and unions to renew their commitments. Despite signs that they were keen to water down requirements, over 150 garment companies since signed.

And in further good news, The Accord was extended to Pakistan at the end of 2022, protecting more garment workers. According to Clean Clothes Campaign, The International Accord now has 187 brand signatories, at least half of which source from Pakistan. Zehra Khan, General Secretary of the Home-Based Women Workers’ Federation, said:

“The Accord programme will bring inspections, safety trainings, and a complaint mechanism covering all health and safety issues, including gender-based violence, to workers in Pakistan producing for signatory brands. Particular attention will be needed to ensure that women workers, who are often not officially registered and might be working from home, have the same access to this programme as other workers.”

How can consumers support the Accord?

To find out how you can support the campaign to renew the Accord, go to the Clean Clothes Campaign website.

You may also want to contact high street brands to encourage them to support it, and avoid shopping with ones that haven't signed up.

Brands that have never supported the Accord

Of the brands in our guide to high street clothes the following brands source considerable amounts of clothes from Bangladesh, yet have never been a signatory to the Accord:

There are also many other brands which haven't signed the Accord. You can check the list on the Clean Clothes Campaign Accord tracker.

Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh
Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh – the deadliest garment factory disaster in history. Image courtesy of War On Want.

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Why are working conditions so poor in the garment industry?

Over the last 50 years, more and more fashion brands have started producing their clothing overseas. Companies have outsourced production to countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan where working conditions remain poor, allowing them to cut their costs and prices.

In turn, sweatshops in these countries rely on the fact that many members of the population are in desperate need of work: they are forced  to accept shockingly low conditions by factors like poverty and urban migration due to climate change.

Brands in the global north both drive and profit from this situation.

Fast-fashion companies have an enormously high turnover of clothing. In the past 20 years, the amount of garments produced annually has doubled, to 100 billion items each year. Many brands offer new designs weekly. This all makes orders unpredictable for garment factories, who in turn rely on a precarious, underpaid and exploited workforce to meet demands.

Fiona Gooch from campaign group Transform Trade told us, “Many retailers pay suppliers up to 6 months after receiving the products. While factories are waiting to be paid, they have to pay interest on loans to cover ongoing costs such as material and wages.

“Brands change design while keeping the same delivery date; change the volume of orders they’ve agreed, or even tell suppliers that they’ll only pay them once a majority of the stock has been sold through their shops. These abusive practices have disastrous knock-on effects.

“Suppliers squeeze their workers to cover the extra costs – dropping pregnancy and maternity rights, demanding unpaid overtime, or failing to make factories safer.”

Invisible homeworkers

For millions of garment homeworkers in south Asia, working from home can mean going unacknowledged in the supply chain policies of fashion brands. A new report,'Working From Home: The Decent Work Deficit of Homeworkers in Selected Cities in South Asia', has found that this can contribute to a culture of extremely low wages and a lack of access to unionisation or the means to negotiate with employers.

The report found that while many homeworkers reported receiving less pay and fewer benefits than their counterparts working in factories, many still preferred to work from home due to family and caring commitments and the terrible, and often dangerous, working conditions frequently endured by garment factory workers.

More than 90% of female fashion homeworkers interviewed in India, Nepal and Pakistan reported earning below the minimum wage.

Rakesh Supkar, India Business Head for Transform Trade, one of the charities involved in the EU-funded report (alongside Homeworkers Worldwide and HomeNet International) stated:

“We call on those brands which haven’t yet done so to introduce a homeworker policy. When homeworking is done right, it can provide flexible, dignified employment and vital income to the millions of women who are unable to work in factories.”

Ensuring equal pay and representation for homeworkers could also create the opportunity for more garment workers to choose which form of working works for them.

Read the Working From Home report.

The impact of Covid-19 on the global clothing industry

The Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but its effects have been felt particularly acutely by workers in the garment sector. As the pandemic took hold across the globe and many countries entered national lockdowns, demand for shop-bought clothes decreased significantly, leading many major clothing brands to cancel orders, delay payments, and impose discounts on suppliers.

The shockwaves broke most heavily on factory workers. Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), a global network dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global garment and sportswear industries, estimates that in the first three months of the pandemic alone, garment workers around the world were owed between $3.19 billion and $5.78 billion in wages.

Due to the extraordinarily low wages in many garment industries, even a slight decrease in wages can push workers and their families into destitution, which is exactly what has happened.

In 2020, the Worker Rights Consortium conducted interviews with 396 garment workers across nine countries and found that 77% reported that they or a member of their household had gone hungry since the beginning of the pandemic, with 20% experiencing hunger on a daily basis.

“Over the last year, workers have suffered huge losses in the form of severance theft and unpaid wages,” Khalid Mahmood told Ethical Consumer in 2021.

“This has forced them to take out loans and sell household items to cover the costs of food. Whilst workers face destitution, the global brands which profit from their labour continue to profit."

Mahmood says that “after lockdown almost all factories dismissed half of their workers, whilst others only worked on alternative days, earning half their salary. Factories justified the job losses, saying they could no longer sustain the full workforce after a reduction of orders from global brands.”

Pakistan garment workers protest
Garment workers protest about conditions, Pakistan. Image by Anne Bienias for #PayYourWorkers, courtesy of Clean Clothes Campaign

Support campaigns for garment workers

As well as supporting ethical brands and steering clear of unethical brands, supporting political campaigns is an important way to affect change. We outline some of the campaigns you can get involved with to help improve conditions for garment workers around the world.

#PayYourWorkers campaign

Throughout the pandemic, the Clean Clothes Campaign has been pressuring brands to meet their obligations and ensure that the workers in their supply chains are paid. The #PayUp campaign focused on getting brands to pay suppliers for orders placed before the crisis and has helped recoup around $22 billion in cancelled orders. However, this is no guarantee that workers will actually be paid.

The #PayYourWorkers campaign, also run by CCC, aims to do just this. It is calling on brands to publish a wage assurance statement committing them to pay all apparel, textile, and footwear workers in their supply chains their legally mandated or regular wages and benefits. In particular, it is calling out Amazon, Adidas, Nike, and Next for failing to commit to ensuring workers get paid during the pandemic.

Over the long-term, it is also calling for brands to pay 10% more per product to end wage theft in their supply chains.

To sign the petition asking brands to commit to the wage assurance and find out how else you can support the campaign, visit the Pay Your Workers website.

Make company directors legally responsible for supply chains

The campaign group Fashion Revolution have argued that company directors need to be made legally responsible for the conditions in their supply chain, a step that has been taken in other nations.

“The scope of the recently introduced loi de vigilance in France covers the activities of subcontractors and suppliers with whom a company has an established commercial relationship, and this sort of legislation is essential if we are to see real change, particularly amongst the laggards in the industry. Under French law, Boohoo directors would have been held legally responsible for the many human rights abuses identified in their supply chain."

Create a Fashion Watchdog

Campaign group Transform Trade is calling for a new Fashion Watchdog in the UK, to ensure that retail brands are treating their suppliers fairly. They say it would address the way in which UK brands drive abusive working conditions by squeezing their prices and lead-times on order. Transform Trade previously fought for a similar supermarket watchdog, which has seen breaches drop from 79% to 29%, according to Fiona Gooch.

They are calling for consumers to sign the petition and write to their MP.

How to make your clothing choices more ethical

1. Read our shopping guide to ethical clothing choices including 28 recommended brands.

2. Avoid shopping with brands who aren't signed up to various regulatory frameworks - see our guide to high street clothing for more info.

3. Support the campaigns outlined above including:

4. Use our 10 top tips for avoiding fast fashion to change your habits with smaller and bigger tricks.