Have you ever wondered who makes your clothes that are sold by luxurious fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara, Fashion Nova, GAP, Levi's etc? Where do they come from? What is cost price of the garments? The dark reality and answers to these questions are hidden from the consumers. Fast fashion is dependent on globalisation, and like any other industry it is powered by cheap labour, generating huge profits at low production cost. Fast fashion garments are high couture designs sold at affordable prices which are easily disposable, steering consumers to buy more garments replacing the previous ones.
Fashion industry has one of the complicated global supply chains, spreading its reach to every country on this planet. According to The Economic Times, global apparel consumption is estimated to be around $1.8 trillion, contributing to 2.3% of the global GDP. Even though individuals and climate change activists voiced their concerns regarding the detrimental effect of fast fashion on the environment over the past few years, there was not enough awareness or dialogue surrounding the issue of these fast fashion brands violating human rights and their oppressive working conditions until last year.
As the demand for fast fashion garments is gigantic, more labourers are required at minimum wage all around the world to get the supply ready, leading to child labour in the fashion industry. Children slip under the radar easily as they agree to the lowest sources of income to support their families and are easy to manage. Children are employed to work at all stages of the supply chain in the fashion industry: from the production of cotton seeds to harvesting, yarn spinning, right through to putting garments together in factories.
Furthermore, these workers are expected to work in cramped working conditions, below minimum wage without any security. These are low-skilled workers without a voice, with no supervision and union to help them.
84% of Bangladesh's total export comprises of the ready-made garment, which is worth $40.5 billion according to BGMEA. When coronavirus hit the world in 2020, it forced everyone into quarantine to maintain social isolation, which adversely impacted every industry especially the fashion industry. This got the attention of the mainstream media which further led to the revelation of the unethical dealing and unjust treatment of workers in the fashion industry. Many established brands cancelled orders that were given months before the pandemic hit, despite the pieces being cut, sewn and finished. This led to losses worth $2.8 billion, ultimately leaving the workers in an extremely vulnerable state as they were unpaid and jobless. Shahir Zahir, Managing Director of Ananta Group, owns seven garment factories in Bangladesh and supplies to brands like, H&M, Zara, Gap, Levi's and Marks & Spencer. In an interview with The New York Times, he said, "The situation is terrible. The Bangladeshi supply chain is in complete disarray with many foreign brands acting irresponsibly."
When the issue of brands not paying factory workers in Bangladesh was brought into the limelight, several initiatives were taken up to provide aid to the garment workers. Awaj Foundation actively spread awareness and became the voice of these workers and alongside media campaigns, the EU granted €113 million to address the garment worker crisis. This included €1 million for paying three months worth of salary to garment workers who became jobless overnight due to cancelled orders in Bangladesh.
"Unpaid Labourers" is not just a story about Bangladeshi garment workers, it is about recognising the struggles of workers across the globe who are underpaid and ill-treated. In Istanbul, workers are crying out loud by slipping notes in ZARA clothes asking the shoppers to get recognition of their issue and pressurize ZARA to pay their workers. According to The Federal Labour Department, a widely known fast fashion brand, Fashion Nova, pays illegally low wages to their workers and sometimes pays its workers off the books to battle the overseas competition.
Thus, before buying, shoppers should be mindful of where they are buying the garment and from whom, because behind the luxurious brands who are getting wealthier, there are workers who are struggling to make ends meet owing to their lack of minimum wage. Raising awareness about this issue will not simply solve it but it will put things into perspective for consumers as they would realise the true cost of fashion and the people behind their favourite apparel brands who are forced to pay the true price of fashion.
Edited by Vaibhav Sharma and Himanya Chadha