Sweatshops are a concept well known to the world of fast-fashion; clothes that are affordable, and the wages of those who made them, even more so. The reality of bargain prices trace back to countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, where manual workers are employed at minimum wage inside a factory or workshop for long hours and under poor conditions.
After the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, a building which housed clothing factories among other shops, the transparency of fashion companies’ supply chains are being called into question as change is slowly taking shape around the operation of sweatshops. A pop-up sweatshop by the Clean Clothing Campaign in Amsterdam challenged consumers to sit behind a sewing machine and make as many garments as they possibly could in an hour, encouraging onlookers to question their fashion retailers about their manufacturing conditions.
Photo: Anko Stoffels
Closer to home, the Australian government is making moves toward a Modern Slavery Act, an act that Britain introduced in 2015. Such an act would might force companies to prove that they are not exploiting foreign workers. Companies with an annual turnover of $50 million would be reporting on their suppliers’ use of overseas labour. The result of the act is not to dole out fines, but to keep transparency between companies, consumers and shareholders.
Perhaps the example needed in this industry to help curb this problem is Nike. The early 1990s saw the brand exposed and shamed relentlessly for its employment of workers in Indonesia and Vietnam for less than minimum wage. The company was protested and criticized until 1998 when then-CEO Phil Knight announced a raise of the minimum age of its workers and increased monitoring in all factories producing Nike’s goods. In the year following, Nike began creating the Fair Labour Association to enforce codes of conduct including a set 60-hour work week and a minimum age to be employed. The company became the first to publish a complete list of all factories they dealt with in 2005 and continues to take corporate social responsibility in auditing data and upholding their commitments to its workers and consumers.
Consumers have a right to know how their goods are being made. Shopping ethically is made easier with Ethical Clothing Accreditation. Ethical Clothing Australia is a program designed to verify that all workers are receiving their legal entitlements. Upon accreditation, retailers appeal to a growing market of consumers and ensure transparency between themselves and consumers.
The change that must occur to better conditions in sweatshops and eradicate slave labour must first come from the consumer. Think about how your money is being spent and whose pocket it’s going into. Brands and retailers must be responsible for their actions. So must we.
Written by: Celina Foong
Feature Image: Kay Nietfeld / Picture-alliance