Slacker’s Syllabus: Garment Workers’ Rights

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How often do you think about where your clothes come from?

The United States’ garment industry is worth a whopping $2.4 trillion.

The clothes and shoes are produced around the world, with the majority of exports coming from China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India.

Yet, garment workers worldwide are often exploited and denied the fruits of their labor.

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Unsafe working conditions are common.

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Garment workers often work in areas without ventilation, where they may inhale toxic chemicals, fiber dust, and more.

85% of garment workers don’t earn a minimum wage, and 10-14 hour days with forced overtime are typical.

This leads to a shocking amount of injuries.

1.4 million

Number of injuries that take place in fashion industry workplaces per year

Common Objective

Fire safety is lacking in garment factories.

In 2012, 112 workers died in Bangladesh after a fire broke out at a factory where they were making clothes for American retailers.

Four years later, a series of reports by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance found that despite promises to improve factory safety, retailers like H&M and Walmart failed to do so.

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These dangers aren’t limited to garment factories abroad.

Los Angeles is the center of the U.S. garment manufacturing industry.

In 2016, the UCLA Labor Center reported that 42% of garment workers said exits and doors in their shops were regularly blocked.

Nearly 50% of workers also stated bathrooms were often soiled and unmaintained, among other health and safety issues.

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It’s not just about working in bad buildings.

Sexual violence is often used to dehumanize and control workers, about 80% of whom are women.

In 2019, an ActionAid report estimated that 80% of all Bangladeshi garment workers experienced or witnessed sexual violence. Last year, the Workers Rights Consortium reported rape and sexual assault were widespread in factories in the African country Lesotho.

According to WRC, over 120 women from three different factories said male supervisors forced them to have sex to keep their jobs.

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The COVID-19 pandemic made everything worse.

Due to the pandemic, millions of garment workers were laid off or saw their hours reduced. Many are still waiting for their owed severance.

Those who continued working were often denied PPE. In 2020, BuzzFeed News reported that Inditex, which owns Zara, fired over 500 workers who asked for durable masks and social distancing protocols.

Retaliation for organizing attempts was commonplace before. Now, WRC advocates say, workers are even more afraid of doing anything that would risk their jobs.

“What we are now facing is nothing short of a human rights catastrophe for millions of women...Now, as workers get more desperate to keep their jobs, they will be less able to speak out.”

As one of the world’s biggest fashion importers, the U.S. has a lot of economic power.

Luckily, consumers are thinking more critically about their role in the fashion industry. There are a lot of calls to avoid fast fashion, thrift more, or generally buy less new clothes.

But overall, increased awareness puts pressure on politicians to protect garment workers in their states — and real change is happening.

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So....should you boycott brands?

There’s no single solution to the garment workers’ crisis.

In some situations, boycotting may help put economic pressure on companies to do better.

But as lifestyle blogger and sustainable fashion advocate Nada El Barshoumi once warned...

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Ultimately, boycotting fast fashion doesn't address the core human effect of the industry: atrocious working conditions.

In 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Garment Worker Protection Act.

The landmark bill ensures corporations pay garment workers in the state a $14 minimum wage.

With it, California became the first state to require an hourly wage for garment workers while banning piecework, a practice in which workers are paid per garment.

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Learn more about the fashion industry and garment workers’ rights:

The Worker Rights Consortium is a labor-rights organization that continues to document abuses against garment workers.

The nonprofit Remake released its 2021 Fashion Accountability Report, detailing where several brands stand on issues like fair wages and environmental justice.

Human Rights Watch also does ongoing work around garment workers’ rights.

This Stuff, a newsletter about fashion by journalist Alyssa Hardy, often highlights crucial issues. Hardy’s book, Worn Out, will be published in 2022.