Fashion's Hidden Hamster Wheel of Poverty
"I would say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering."

- Sir Winston Churchill.
You might have thought that in 2021, having survived wars that flattened nations and genocides that shook us to our cores, human exploitation would be a thing of the past. Perhaps I would have been inclined to think so too, had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic that put a glaring highlight on this issue. And as an industry that is supposedly always at the forefront of "progressive-ness", fashion should have been the first to shun the existence of something so unspeakably horrific in the modern day. Ladies and gentlemen, the ordeal we have today before us is the ordeal of the sweatshop industry, one that not only puts a meagre price on the hours of blood, toil, tears and sweat of its workers, but very often, on their lives as well.

We often refer to ourselves as living in a rat race – looking to maximise money, comfort, happiness and other luxuries, and it is by no means "not" dehumanising, to say the very least. Some even might chime in – it is the way of the capitalist world! But we need to draw a line between where this rat race turns into a hamster-wheel for the pleasure of the privileged. And that's exactly what sweatshops are – hamster wheels. Unbeknownst to many of us, while sustainable fashion has immense benefits circulating to the environment, the fast fashion industry in particular already has a more vicious circle in place, especially when it comes to the cheapest of products.
garment workers, sweatshops, fashion industry, workers' rights, fast fashion, sustainable fashion, moda sostenibile
Garment factory by Rio Lecatompessy
A t-shirt for $10 – an attractive bargain? Think again, because the worker who made it is likely to receive no more than 40p for it (their estimated earning can actually vary between 4p – 40p). Think again, because how many times are you actually going to wear it – 5 or 6, maybe 10 at best? Then what? They end up in landfills. Think again before you snag that "bargain", because only 80% of the manufactured bulk of cheap, fast fashion items ever make it to consumers – the rest are shredded, burned or discarded. And that's not even counting the thousands of orders cancelled due to delays and manufacturing flaws, regardless of the fact that the working conditions where these are made being far from perfect.
Speaking of order cancellations, what largely fuels sweatshops to continue to exist is that consumer demand for this industry is precarious. Case in point: the coronavirus pandemic. Even though during this situation, some premier names of the luxury industry has actually witnessed record sales (looking at you, Hermès!), the biggest losses were sustained by US and European fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara and Gap Inc., with chains like Debenhams in the UK going into administration and Arcadia Group (owner of Topshop) laying off and furloughing thousands of workers.

But the worst brunt of this was borne by - you guessed it - the sweatshop countries like Bangladesh and Ethiopia. Under the guise of "outsourcing", manufacture of apparel is contracted or subcontracted out to these countries making cancellations easy and at times, risk free, even. As a result, orders worth $16.2 billion were cancelled in April to June 2020 alone, and in turn, the sweatshop factories laid off thousands more.

Now, even though essentially workers everywhere have been fired, sometimes unjustly, the difference between the redundancies made in western chains and sweatshop countries lie in the fact that for workers in the poorer nations, working 12+ hours a day for a monthly wage amounting to less than $100 is not uncommon. Add to that the issue that, upto a staggering 70% of a factory's workforce can consist of temporary or contractual workers, i.e. no severance package or unemployment benefit at all, which honestly, seems like a tall order, given that their majority reside in factory quarters and hence, are neck-deep in debt to the owners themselves. This circle of utter negativity continues with the fact that the remaining workforce is forced to do overwork and overtime, with the threat of terminations looming large if they dare refuse. This is further exacerbated by their working and living conditions, so much that at times the workers are forced to return to work in unsafe buildings and even locked in if they are too terrified to remain there – one of the key causes that led to the demise of 1,134 workers in the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh on 24th April, 2013, the most grievous industrial accident since the 1911 Shirtwaist Factory disaster in New York. But while the Shirtwaist Disaster led to a number of significant industrial reforms, many victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy are yet to receive compensation packages, either from the company owner or from the Bangladeshi Government, as they lamented on the recent eighth anniversary of the incident.
This hamster wheel is all the more difficult to escape from because so many of these sweatshop factories are endorsed and given tax advantages by the government, in the hope for economic development, and RMG is currently the biggest contributor to Bangladesh's export basket. This means we are faced with incredible difficulty when trying to curb the use of sweatshops, more so because those who boycott them are often seen as "hindrances to the nation's development". Add to that the exorbitant profits the factory owners get to pocket, who are practically gods to the workers there given how they are left to their mercy when it comes to job security and payment, and you see what it means for these unfortunate workers to be truly godforsaken.
garment workers, sweatshops, Indian garment worker, fashion industry, workers' rights, fast fashion, sustainable fashion, moda sostenibile
Garment worker by Sanjoy Saha
Certain challenges are present on the workers' front too, many of whom have migrated from rural villages to towns for work. In 2019, Forbes declared that people in Bangladesh who worked in agriculture or market selling earned about as much money as they could have at the factory, often with fewer hours, better conditions and lesser risk of serious injuries and disabilities. However, there is a certain social prestige attached to "moving to the city" and working in factories for these people, especially the rural-urban migrants, so they might be reluctant to leave their low-paying horrible factory jobs even if they're likely to get killed in the process. Then, trade unions, a solution which apparently has worked in the West, is actually detrimental to these workers due to their collective failure to negotiate with owners and lack of support from the government. In fact, waves of redundancies are primarily targeted to union members, as an act of vengeance, a process known as "union busting".

So, eventually, is there a way out?

The answer to that is uncertain, since brands themselves need to step in and take accountability of the factories they source from, possibly even ensure safer conditions, which is tough to achieve in real life, even with growing consumer movements towards ethical manufacturing practices. The campaign launched by Remake called #PayUp last March drew significant attention to the dozen or so global brands and retailers who, rather than take a cut on their profits, chose to cancel orders or default on payments for clothes that had already been made in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and other garment centres. A step in the right direction, but a lot more is wanting.

Most importantly, awareness is required on behalf of the "gods" in question here; the arrest of Masud Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, is an example, albeit a poor one. Rather, many owners in Bangladesh have actually obtained steps to support the destitute, godless workers – with food packages, monetary benefits and even rent-breaks to those who resided in factory quarters. Acting as a much better example of the role garments-owners can play, this is something that consumers and watchdogs need to appreciate, support and endorse.

At the same time, this wave of awareness and sympathy needs to extend beyond the apparel industry – the 2011 study by Dr. Suraiya Begum titled "Skin Problems Among the Workers Employed in Leather Tanneries" for the National Institute of Preventative and Social Medicine in Bangladesh reflect that the garments industry isn't the only culprit here. Furthermore, even in the West, cities like Los Angeles continue to harbour sweatshop factories. So, in no way is the battle before us easy.

The picture presented here may be bleak, to say the least, but signs of progress exist nonetheless. For a start, we now have this data at our disposal to make conscious choices, and this can be said for consumers, manufacturers and governments alike. Sustainability when it comes to natural resources is important, yes, but in the context of human resources, it's absolutely vital, because without them, we may not have a future generation to look forward to at all. The ordeal of the sweatshop is hence a threat to mankind, and it's time again for us to expend our blood, toil, tears and sweat to save humanity from itself. Let's get these unfortunate people down from their hamster-wheels once and for all!
Article by Sajid Bin Mohammad
Main photograph by Nurphoto