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How Modern Slavery Has Made its Way into Our Clothes

By Anna-Karina Yuill

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Recently, Boohoo, which also owns brands such as Pretty Little Thing, Nasty Gal and Warehouse, has come under fire due to claims of ‘modern slavery’ in its warehouses in Leicester. It has come to light that its workers in this facility were earning £3.50 an hour, where the UK minimum wage for over 25s is £8.72. This has caused sites such as ASOS to drop Boohoo brands, and MPs such as Philip Dunne to criticise the company. However, this is not just a one-time incident happening within one corporation - this is a common occurrence happening to garment workers globally.

Fashion, as well as being one of the most polluting industries (second only to oil), has supply chains riddled with a lack of safety regulations and worker exploitation. Seven years ago in Bangladesh, the Dhaka garment factory, home to Primark, Gucci and Mango workers (among others) collapsed killing 1134 people. This shocked many throughout the world and caused Fashion Revolution Week to be set up to fight against the dark side of the industry we don’t see as western consumers. But how much has really changed?

According to Fashion Revolution, less than 2% of garment workers globally earn a fair living wage. It takes a garment worker 18 months to earn the same a fast fashion CEO would make on a lunch break and they are often denied basic union rights and work excessive hours. According to Hult Research and Ethical Trading Initiative, 77% of UK retailers believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery in their supply chain.

This can be seen with the recent letter sent to the government from the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), who said there was “overwhelming evidence” that Uighurs were being used for forced labour in China’s cotton industry in Xinjiang. Brands involved in this have been named as H&M and Uniqlo among others. Uighur Muslims are being placed into ‘re-education camps’ in an attempt to destroy their culture and religion, and thanks to the lack of required transparency in supply chains, the exploitation of this persecuted group has found its way into our clothes.

The vast majority of these workers are women of colour, so while some brands such as Nasty Gal release feminist mantra slogan tees, it will often ironically be made by an exploited underpaid woman for a company whose CEO is worth $100 million (2018). This is just another example of a brand using performative allyship - making little to no effort in supporting the movements it appears to care about, whilst also profiting from them.

Some worry that with increased wages for garment workers, the price of clothes would become too high, resulting in alienation of target markets. However, this is not always true. According to Fashion Revolution, providing a living wage to workers would increase the price of a €39 shirt by €1.57. With clothes selling as cheaply as £5, we become used to incredibly low prices as the norm, but it should not have to be an added bonus for a piece of fashion to be made ethically and sustainably, yet somehow it has become far from standard.

So, what’s driving this exploitation and allowing it to happen? Despite evidence that the sustainable fashion movement is growing, mainstream news channels do not tend to report on the problems within fast fashion. It is therefore understandable why consumers repeatedly flock to these brands. Without access to this information, consumers have little idea of the industry’s devastating impact. Those without the privilege of time and money to research and invest in sustainable garments have few alternatives. This allows these brands to continue profiting from worker exploitation, and so the cycle continues…

With the government failing to regulate fast fashion, brands are not held accountable and consumers have no other choice but to continue purchasing from these brands as the norm. In fact, with the economy struggling due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the government is promoting the industry more than ever and encouraging the public to spend. But with the average UK consumer purchasing 27.6kg of clothing a year (a startling 10kg more than any other nationality) the problems in the industry will only get worse without a change in attitude and consumption habits.

If we want to purchase a fashion product, we need to consider whether it’s an essential purchase, and if it is we need to be making every effort to shop from local, independent, or sustainable brands, or even better, to buy second hand. Through the app ‘Good on You’, consumers can access research on the sustainability and ethics of over 2000 brands, which are a assigned a score on a 5-point scale. Innovations like these mean conscious consumerism has become a lot more accessible and consumers can make better choices on who their money is going to.

Individually, we can join and support action groups, sign petitions and vote with our money and choices, using our power as a consumer, but until supply chains become more transparent and the government chooses to hold brands accountable, fast fashion will continue to thrive.

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