As part of his regular series on modern slavery, James Melville looks at how many of the garments we wear rest on a supply chain of child exploitation and misery

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The received wisdom about slavery is that it is a thing of the past; a crime against human rights but a relic from an imperialist colonial era. But slavery still exists in many forms today and still affects millions of victims.

Fast fashion giant Boohoo is facing an investigation into accusations of modern slavery after it emerged clothing workers at factories in Leicester, UK, were being paid just £3.50 an hour. An investigation carried out by The Sunday Times last week claimed that textile workers producing clothes for Boohoo’s suppliers were being paid far below the UK minimum wage (£9.30) while working in unsafe conditions.

Labour extracted through force, coercion, or threats produces some of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the mobile phones that we hold

Even in the present day, men, women and children all over the world remain victims of modern slavery. They are bought and sold in public markets, forced to marry against their will and provide labour under the guise of “marriage,” working inside unfit-for-purpose factories on the promise of a salary that is often withheld, or toiling under threats of violence. They are forced to work on construction sites, in stores, on farms, or in homes as maids. Labour extracted through force, coercion, or threats produces some of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the mobile phones that we hold.

Child Labour and Fashion

There are an estimated 40.3 million people — more than three times the number of victims of the transatlantic slave trade — who are living in some form of modern slavery, according to the latest figures published by the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation. Children make up 25% of this total and account for 10 million of all the slaves worldwide.

Around 260 million children are in employment around the world, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Of them, the ILO estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labour, defined by the UN as “work for which the child is either too young – work done below the required minimum age – or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited”.

The ILO estimate that there are 6 million children are in forced labour.

We are all unwittingly consuming products that have their origins in slavery. Consumers are often unaware that it’s hidden in the supply chains of everyday products, such as smartphones, laptops, shoes, chocolate, makeup, coffee and the supply chains of western clothing brands.

According to the Global Slavery Index, the fashion industry is one of the biggest promoters of modern slavery in the world. Clothing is the second-highest product at risk of being made by modern slaves. G20 countries imported $127 billion fashion garments identified as at-risk products of modern slavery. Slavery in the fashion world can appear in a variety of forms from harvesting the cotton for a t-shirt, spinning the fibre to yarn, sewing the garment and modelling the final product to satisfy the demand of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond.

Many large fashion brands and companies do not have full control over their supply chains, thus making illegal work practices possible (including sweatshops, trafficking and servitude).

As the Guardian reported in 2015 in a Unicef sponsored article – ‘Child Labour: Fixing Fashion’ – mass-production fashion has “engendered a race to the bottom, pushing companies to find ever-cheaper sources of labour. That cheap labour is freely available in many of the countries where textile and garment production takes place”.

Corporations often build their factories in developing countries to keep their costs low, which leads not only to the use of slave labour but also the use of child slave labour. In countries like India, where textile and garment production occurs, children’s small hands are better suited for picking cotton, and sewing cheap garments for the fast fashion industry only requires a minimal amount of skill. 

Supply Chain Exploitation

Children work at all stages of the supply chain in the fashion industry: from the production of cotton seeds in Benin, harvesting in Uzbekistan, yarn spinning in India, right through to the different phases of putting garments together in factories across Bangladesh.

In the cotton industry, children are employed to transfer pollen from one plant to another. They are subjected to long working hours, exposure to pesticides and they are often paid below the minimum wage.

75% of 219 brands surveyed did not know the source of all their ­fabrics and inputs

As Josephine Moulds wrote in the Guardian : “One of the biggest challenges in tackling child labour in the fashion supply chain is the complex supply chain for each garment. Even when brands have strict guidelines in place for suppliers, work often gets sub-contracted to other factories that the buyer may not even know about.” Sofie Ovaa, global campaign coordinator of Stop Child Labour, told Moulds that “companies that sell their products in Europe and the US have no clue where the textiles are sourced.”

In 2019 the National reported on how the garment supply chain “is infamous for its complexity”. “A Baptist World’s Aids Behind the Barcode report in 2015 documenting that 75% of 219 brands surveyed did not know the source of all their ­fabrics and inputs, and only half could trace where their products were cut and sewed,” explained reporter Sass Brown.

Tackling child labour is further complicated by the fact it is just a symptom of larger problems. Where there is extreme poverty, there will be children willing to work cheaply and susceptible to being tricked into dangerous or badly paid work.

Fundamentally, our rampant consumerism continues to drive slavery. Servitude happens as a result of brands seeking to lower their production costs. Until there is a concerted attempt by governments and brands to tighten up regulations in the suppy chains, modern day slavery and the exploitation of millions of cheap labourers will continue. 

This article was amended on 15/02/2020 to properly attribute a Unicef sponsored piece by Josephine Moulds in the Guardian and an article by Sass Brown in the National


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