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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.

Within the UK, current laws protect garment worker rights, for example the UK Modern Slavery Act (2015) seeks to prevent worker exploitation. Since the UK’s industrial revolution, laws have been passed to protect labour rights, including: limits on children working, the right to form trade unions and rights to safe working conditions. One labour right - the minimum wage, has been controversial in terms of whether the current minimum wage is liveable with enough money for food, rent and other essentials. Critics suggest current laws, which seek to protect garment workers in the UK, need amendment along with the adoption of new law to increase effectiveness and enforcement of basic standards and wider consideration of exploitation of illegal immigrants. The government plans to introduce a new bill to protect workers’ rights against workplace abuse, by creating a new workers’ watchdog to enforce the minimum wage, protect agency workers and prevent worker exploitation from modern-day slavery.[viii]

One size does not fit all garment workers internationally, and different governments have different laws in place to protect garment workers, resulting in different standards globally for the challenges faced by garment workers. Most garment production happens in lower economically developed countries who are less willing to incorporate strong labour protections, with 60% of global clothing exports manufactured in developing countries.[ix] International legal frameworks do exist to encourage countries to adopt and improve labour and human rights laws. International organisations such as the International Labour Organisation provide frameworks for international social and labour standards.

Countries with strong human rights and labour protection often encounter problems enforcing these rights. In comparison, countries with few protections increase the likelihood of exploitation. Domestically, concerns arise over how to enforce domestic safeguards and how to achieve accountability for UK businesses using exploitive garment worker production abroad.

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Can a legal approach help eliminate garment worker exploitation within the fashion industry?

Current human rights and labour laws provides some protections for garment workers. It is clear that a further strengthening of the existing body of law within the UK is needed to ensure garment workers human and labour rights are fully protected. Globally, a clear legal standard is needed to provide strong garment worker protections and enforcement, to reduce the discrepancy of garment worker protections in different countries.

To find out more about exploitation in the fashion industry, read part two and three of this blog series to learn about environmental exploitation and customer and consumer manipulation. The third blog also considers the overall effectiveness of a legal approach in eliminating injustice within the fashion industry.


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