Paying the Price for Cheaper Clothes
Demand for cheaper clothing has a social impact as well as an environmental one. In order to keep costs down, clothing companies look for the cheapest possible labour. Clothes are often made by people, including children, who are paid very low wages and who often work very long hours in unsafe conditions. These types of factories are sometimes known as ‘sweat shops’ because of the high temperatures reached there.
Lots of fashion brands reassure their customers that they are paying their workers ‘at least the minimum wage’ insisted upon by their respective countries. However, a study by the Clean Clothes Campaign discovered that in countries such as China, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia, the minimum wage was sometimes as much as five times lower than the ‘living wage’ needed to be able to afford food, rent, healthcare and education. Many workers are forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week in order to meet their deadlines and they do not earn enough to be able to afford to refuse working overtime.
Conditions in many of the clothing factories are unsafe. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1000 workers and injuring 2,500 more. Fires in clothing factories are common and it is also not unusual for people to work in badly ventilated spaces, inhaling toxic chemicals or fibre dust all day. Due to the demand for more and more clothing, the demands on workers can be unrealistic, with workers penalised if they don’t meet the impossible targets. People are denied water or breaks if they do not keep up.
There have also been examples of forced or slave labour in the fashion industry where people are made to work for no wage and against their wishes. In Uzbekistan for example, each autumn, the government forces over a million people, including children, to leave their schools and jobs in order to go and pick the cotton harvest. Many of the workers in clothing factories across the world are women and young girls who are put to work in clothing factories instead of going to school.