Garment Industry: Modern Day Slavery?

Photo: Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images

History of Fashion

Prior to the nineteenth century, textile and clothing production relied primarily on made-by-hand methods. The Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century marked the transition to a new, more efficient manufacturing process in the Western world[i]. Mechanized methods of manufacturing became widespread, resulting in cheaper and faster clothing production. As consumer prices fell, new apparel retailers emerged to cater to a growing demand for affordable garments, and to create employment opportunities. While the Industrial Revolution provided an incentive to increase profits, these motivations were also responsible for creating deplorable working conditions that exploited the absence of labor protection laws.

In the last decade, the global apparel market has become a juggernaut in the international economy, reaching a value of 1.78 trillion USD in 2019[ii]. This number exemplifies how influential the soaring consumer demands are from people who want to continuously update their wardrobes to keep up with the latest trends.The process of inexpensive mass manufacturing of clothing in order to keep up with the latest trends is known as Fast Fashion, an approach to clothing production that presents substantial ethical challenges[iii].Discretely sewn into the clothes we wear is the truth about the horrific working conditions which the individuals who make our clothing are subjected to.

Dire Labor Conditions

The garment industry has recently come under fire with numerous accusations of labor rights abuses. One such case was the Rana Plaza disaster that took place in Bangladesh in April 2013. The eight-story building containing 5 different factories collapsed due to a structural failure leading to 1,134 deaths. Since the disaster, the International Labor Organization has registered “no fewer than 109 accidents”, “among which at least 35 were textile factory incidents in which 491 workers were injured and 27 lost their lives.”[iv] This tragedy lives on today as a powerful indictment of the unsafe environments many garment laborers are forced to work in[v]. Human Rights Watch revealed that the same human rights violations characteristic of the Rana Plaza disaster are more common than we might realize[vi]. Their research determined that inhumane working conditions are widespread in garment factories, in fact, it is common practice for “factory owners and managers [to] fire pregnant workers or deny maternity leave; retaliate against workers who join or form unions; force workers to do overtime work or risk losing their job; and turn a blind eye when male managers or workers sexually harass female workers.”

Underpaid and Strained Workers

To meet growing consumer demands, retail businesses are always on the lookout for cheap labor costs. The expansion of the garment industry has, therefore, become a leading economic contributor in developing areas[vii]. Countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and many more, employ millions of workers to satisfy the requests of clothing companies. Despite earning the minimum wage, garment factory workers often face financial strain while struggling to fulfill their basic needs such as water, food, and shelter[viii]. These challenges highlight the disparity between the minimum wage and what is considered to be the living wage[ix]. The minimum legal amount of remuneration fails to consider the rising cost of living. Hence, this amount is not representative of what an individual needs in order to live with dignity, which is better reflected by the living wage. Considering that Bangladeshi workers earn about $0.95/hour and Indian workers make about $2.27/hour, access to a decent living is rife.

These endemically low wages in the garment industry compel workers to take on excessive hours. A study conducted by SACOM and War and Want in China found that workers are often forced to do 80 to 150 hours of overtime per month[x]. Despite government regulations, workers are still obliged to work until 2 or 3 a.m. during peak seasons to meet brand deadlines[xi].

Child Labor

One of the most pressing concerns in the garment industry is child labor. Although forbidden by law, it persists in some of the poorest countries of the world. The International Labor Organization “estimates that 170 million [manufacturers] are engaged in children labor, with many making textiles and garments to satisfy the demands of consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond.”[xii] This dire situation not only prevents these children from their right to education, but also opens the door for employers to exploit their weakness and innocence. Sofie Ovaa, a global campaign coordinator for Stop Child Labor, explains that the reason employers get away with this is “because the fashion supply chain is hugely complex, and it is hard for companies to control every stage of production.”[xiii] Tackling child labor is complicated because it is part of a vicious cycle. When parents have no educational background, they are more likely to end up in low-paying positions, requiring their children to work and miss out on their education. This increases the likelihood that when these children grow up, they will also end up working in low-paying jobs, thus reproducing the cycle.

Today many organizations are working towards alleviating the pressures workers face in the textile industry. Positive change can only occur when companies are transparent about their practices and empower their workers. Empowerment must involve the building of a critical consciousness. To do this, workers must become cognizant of their rights, so that they may change the way they see and experience their worlds.

Edited by Laurence Campanella


[i] Chen, James. “How the Industrial Revolution Changed Business and Society.” Investopedia. Investopedia, February 1, 2020.

[ii] Clarelissaman. “The Size of the Global Fashion Retail Market.” Common Objective. Common Objective, May 14, 2018.

[iii] Kenton, Will. “How Fast Fashion Works.” Investopedia. Investopedia, March 23, 2020.

[iv] “The Rana Plaza Accident and Its Aftermath.” The Rana Plaza Accident and its aftermath, December 21, 2017.–en/index.htm.  

[v] “The Rana Plaza Accident and Its Aftermath.” The Rana Plaza Accident and its aftermath, December 21, 2017.–en/index.htm.

[vi] Roth, Kenneth. “World Report 2018: Rights Trends in ‘Soon There Won’t Be Much to Hide.’” Human Rights Watch, April 6, 2018.

[vii] Lu, Sheng. “Changing Trends in World Textile and Apparel Trade.” just-style, September 4, 2018.

[viii] Muscati, Samer, and Sustainable Brands. “Garment Worker Diaries Reveal Working Conditions, Wages in Bangladesh, India, Cambodia.” Sustainable Brands, February 22, 2018.

[ix] “What Is the Living Wage?” Ontario Living Wage Network.


[xi] “Working Hours and Overtime: 96-Hour Workweeks.” Clean Clothes Campaign, April 29, 2013.


[xiii] “Child Labour in the Fashion Supply Chain.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media.

By Raya Chehabeddine

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