Written by Mollie Knight
Today is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, so this is a great opportunity to talk about modern slavery and how this is still a major component of the fashion industry.
When people think about slavery, they might think about horrific events and systems of power that took place in the past, which eventually were abolished. However, that is not really the case. Slavery is still alive and well today – you might’ve heard the term ‘modern-day slavery’ mentioned in the news or around social media. In fact,there are more people today trapped in slavery than ever before. This is despite slavery being illegal in all countries around the world.
Credit: Musamir Azad
But what does modern slavery really refer to?
According to anti-slavery.org, modern-day slavery “is the severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain”. This can take many forms, including human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, descent-based slavery, slavery of children or forced & early marriage.
Modern slavery can extend beyond this, however, and include unpaid or forced prison labour (or penal labour). Although not all prison labour is forced, the environment poses particular risks due to the inherent power imbalance and the fact that imprisoned individuals have few options for challenging abuses whilst jailed. This can take place in prisons, immigration detention camps or internment camps, like the Turkic Uyghur camps in China. On top of this, the privatisation of prisons in the UK & USA and mass-incarceration, particularly of black men, means that production companies can be brought into prisons, where they are given access to a huge cheap workforce. People are, thus, able to directly profit off others being locked-up - through this system of exploitation.
People become trapped in these systems of exploitation because they are vulnerable; often forced into making certain choices as a result of poverty. Women and children are particularly vulnerable - 1 in 4 slaves around the world are children and 71% of people in slavery are women & girls. Another factor that indisputably makes someone vulnerable to modern slavery is race. Slavery builds on existing forms of discrimination and racial inequality. As Freedom United puts:
“The systemic xenophobia and deep-set societal norms of racial discrimination make it almost ‘permissible’ for brown and black workers to be exploited, in ways as extreme as to be criminal.”
This racial inequality combined with gender inequality means black and brown women are the most vulnerable people to becoming trapped in modern slavery.
Many industries today are still benefitting from slave labour: agriculture, electronics, manufacturing, and, of course, fashion.
Credit: Jarkko Viikki via Flikr
According to the Global Slavery Index, garments are the second largest imported products linked to modern-day slavery. Slave labour can be used to harvest natural fibres, make the fabrics, sew and even model the clothing. Often times this is able to happen through unregulated, hazy supply chains and outsourcing. Around 100 pairs of hands touch an average item of clothing during its production.
Credit: Jarkko Viikki via Flikr
Often it's hard to know where and who we are really buying products from, and that’s why raising awareness, shedding light and demanding transparency on these industry practices is so important. In 2017, some shoppers were confronted with the reality of where their clothes came from when notes pleading for help were found slipped into their Zara garments. Some read "I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it". The same production company also made clothes for big names like Next and Mango.
“Modern slavery is not something that happens ‘over there’ that we don’t have to think about … It’s a first world problem; it’s our problem, but it’s also our opportunity, we can change it. If we care about the people who make our products we can make a difference.” - Forrest, UN Association of Australia goodwill ambassador for anti-slavery.
Stopping modern-day slavery in the fashion industry requires a truly global response, from companies, governments, and people like me and you. Companies need to take action and really check their supply chains, ensuring everyone at each step of the way is being paid fairly. Governments need to actually enforce anti-slavery laws more pro-actively and hold people soliciting and proliferating slavery accountable. We can put pressure on them to do this, but we also hold a lot of power in our wallets.
‘Fast fashion’ is the Frankenstein’s monster that has been created in response to consumer demand for cheaper garments and the accelerating trend cycle. As a result, companies are expected to produce more garments, faster and cheaper. These mass-market retailers still want to get a hefty profit from the cheap things they’re selling, so it isn’t surprising that along the supply chain corners are cut - the metaphorical corner here being the law. By not paying fair wages (or any wages at all), failing to provide decent working conditions and using exploitative practices, multi-million-pound corporations are able to keep generating a greater profit. By buying from these companies, we are, unknowingly, directly supporting this exploitation.
Us as consumers need to carefully consider where we want to put our money. If you’re buying a hand-made crochet dress for under £10, for example, it might be time to consider who had to suffer to make those items so cheap. Really, it is about having empathy for one another and considering the bigger picture. Do you need to spend hundreds of pounds on clothes on Shein, just to try and keep up with the ever-quicker trend cycle? Here at OWF we are about empowering people everywhere, including you and those who make our clothes. You can experiment with your style and create your own trends, whilst knowing that the people that made our clothes in the collection were paid fairly.
If you’re interested in finding out more about how fashion and modern slavery are interlinked, I highly recommend the documentary ‘The True Cost’ available on YouTube.
“Freedom for everyone, everywhere, always.” – anti-slavery.org