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A legal approach for tackling garment worker exploitation in the fashion industry

Written by Natasha Jacobs

Growing awareness of exploitation within the fashion industry has permeated mainstream media, with critics raising concerns about problems and injustice within the industry. If one pauses now when reading this blog to consider the injustices of the fashion industry, the list could very well be quite long! Amongst other issues, problems within the fashion industry include the underpayment and poor conditions of workers, the use of fabrics leaching microplastics into our oceans and the never-ending need to buy replacement low-quality garments.

Injustice in the fashion industry can be grouped into three types of exploitation: of garment workers, the environment, and customers and consumers. Having categorised the fashion industry’s problems, the next question is: how can we begin to make real solutions? Numerous solutions have been proposed including increasing the fashion industry’s sustainability and ethicalness. A method of achieving much needed improvements for the fashion industry in eliminating injustice can be achieved using a legal approach. Law can be used to regulate exploitation within the fashion industry, by establishing safeguarding laws and having laws to achieve accountability when exploitation is exposed.

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Let’s consider the fashion industry’s exploitation of garment workers, the environment and consumers and customers, and consider how a legal approach can eliminate injustice, looking at current and proposed laws, and consider what additional law could be proposed to address remaining injustices. This is the first of a series of three blogs, with this blog considering whether a legal approach is the way forward in tackling exploitation of garment workers.

Garment workers

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Despite 60 million garment workers existing globally,[iii] this group is often a faceless entity within the fashion industry. Scandals, both in the UK (Leicester sweatshops)[iv] and elsewhere (Rana Plaza Disaster, Bangladesh)[v] highlight the bleak reality and injustice garment workers can face in both economically and lower-economically developed countries.

Exploitation of garment workers via: long working hours, low wages, no breaks, no sick pay can often be described in terms of modern-day slavery, forced labour and child labour. Poor labour standards for garment workers includes: working with hazardous materials and dyes, banning of trade unions, instant dismissal and improper working conditions including overcrowding and no clear pathways to fire exits, (if they do exist).

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The problems faced by garment workers can be categorised into violations of human rights and labour rights. Garment worker exploitation has wider long-term ramifications, including weakened mental health and reduced physical health, and without change or intervention this can lead to a lifetime of poverty and living below the breadline.[vii]

Non-law based solutions of eliminating garment worker exploitation has included amongst other suggestions: only buying from businesses which guarantee non-exploitation of its garment workers and boycotting businesses using exploitative measures. An opposing view that boycotting companies or even countries who routinely use methods such as sweatshops and child labour can be extremely harmful for the workers and their incomes, but often ultimately leads to a lack of progress.

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