Cotton has been used for textiles since 5,000 BC, and it is still heavily present in our daily lives. Besides its widespread use for household items such as bed linen and upholstery, it remains the most widely used natural fibre in the fashion industry due to the versatility, durability, and softness of cotton fabric. We believe it is necessary to ask ourselves where the cotton in our clothes comes from, but more importantly, whose hands make it possible for us to enjoy its comforts and at what cost.
Cotton production begins with the harvesting of the cotton plant, from which the lint is picked manually or mechanically. The fibres are separated from the seeds through a process called ginning, and then cleaned and carded to align them. They are later spun into yarn, and finally weaved or knitted to obtain cotton fabric.
Due to the complexity of this process, large-scale cotton production requires a global supply chain which involves a variety of locations, processes, and of course, people. Sadly, this supply chain is rife with human rights abuses, which need to be acknowledged and addressed by all stakeholders in the apparel industry in order to support and empower the estimated 350 million workers whose income depends on this crop.
Child labour in cotton production is also prevalent in other countries; in agriculture, many children perform unpaid labour with their parents in the fields, and this sector is a key employer of migrant children who are especially vulnerable to exploitation. It has also been reported that child labour is present in other stages of the process such as in spinning mills. In 2016, a study found that about 20% of female workers in the mills in India were under 14 years old, forced to work long hours, living in company-controlled hostels and facing sexual harassment.
Both children and adults face severe health risks throughout the cotton production process.
While cultivating cotton, workers are exposed to harmful pesticides as they often lack the appropriate equipment or training to handle those substances safely. In cotton mills, exposure to cotton dust causes short and long-term health hazards, such as chronic coughs, bronchitis and byssinosis, a lung disease similar to asthma. Even during the yarn finishing processes, workers involved in textile dyeing can experience dermatitis, respiratory diseases and allergic reactions due to the chemicals found in the dyes, some of which have carcinogenic effects.
The prevalence of these issues is exacerbated by the fact that traceability along the cotton supply chain is difficult to achieve due to its complexity and opacity, posing a significant risk for all companies that take part in the trade of this commodity. However, it is possible to bring about change by challenging these harmful practices like so many workers have done around the globe.
Almas Parveen’s story is a clear example of this. She faced opposition from some members of her community when she decided to take over her elderly father’s cotton farm instead of following the usual custom in Pakistan and deferring the farm’s management to a male farmer, but she stood strong and was able to increase her yields and support her family. As she gained knowledge and competence, she began to train other farmers and helped them shift towards more sustainable farming practices, increasing their benefits and gaining their respect and appreciation.
In addition to farmers, there are many other individuals involved in cotton production who can make a difference through their actions. For over a decade, Mehmet has been a labour contractor who provides temporary workers with employment opportunities in cotton farms in Şanlıurfa, Turkey. During his early years in this role, he was unaware of many local regulations and followed traditional practices, such as hiring the workers’ children together with their parents and charging workers 10% of their earnings to make a living himself. After participating in a training project that seeks to engage farmers, workers and contractors to improve working conditions in the local cotton farms, he stopped hiring children, registered all his workers to offer them a contract and decent wages, and began earning commission from the farms’ owners instead of the workers.
These stories showcase how cooperation and training can empower cotton workers to improve their own working conditions and support others in their community to do the same. As consumers, learning about the people behind our cotton garments is a crucial step towards driving change, and Justice in Fashion aim to facilitate this to enable us to make more informed choices.
Anti-Slavery International (n. d.) Cotton Crimes: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Available at: https://www.antislavery.org/what-we-do/uzbekistan-turkmenistan/
Anti-Slavery International (2019) Forced Labour Tainted Cotton: from Turkmenistan via Turkey. Available at: https://www.antislavery.org/forced-labour-tainted-cotton-from-turkmenistan-via-turkey/#:~:text=Cotton%20picking%20is%20an%20arduous,in%20squalid%20and%20unsanitary%20conditions (Accessed: 13 January 2021).
Better Cotton Initiative (2018) Female Farmer Becomes a Role Model in Pakistani Cotton Community. Available at: http://stories.bettercotton.com/Almas-Parveen/index.html (Accessed: 13 January 2021).
Better Cotton Initiative (2018) Improving Working Conditions for Farm-Workers in Şanlıurfa. Available at: http://stories.bettercotton.com/Sanliurfa/index.html (Accessed: 13 January 2021).
Common Objective (2018) Fibre Briefing: Cotton. Available at: https://www.commonobjective.co/article/fibre-briefing-cotton#:~:text=Cotton%20is%20a%20natural%20fibre,seeds%20of%20the%20cotton%20plant. (Accessed: 13 January 2021).
International Labour Organisation (2016) Child Labour In Cotton. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/ipecinfo/product/download.do?type=document&id=29655 (Accessed: 13 January 2021).
Nagaraj, A. (2016) “Scale of child slavery ‘shocking’ in India's spinning mills: research”. Thomson Reuters Foundation, 22 December. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-textiles-workers/scale-of-child-slavery-shockingin-indias-spinning-mills-research-idUSKBN14B231 (Accessed: 13 January 2021).