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Apparel Companies Still Have an Abysmal Record on Forced Labor

Words by Leon Kaye

The NGOs Humanity United and Business and Human Rights Resource Centre recently issued a report that is pessimistic about the global apparel industry’s efforts to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains.

Issued by KnowTheChain, the survey offers a grim assessment about companies’ actions to protect workers during the recruitment process. The NGOs also say these companies have little or no process in place allowing them to listen to their employees’ concerns.

The average score on the assessment is 46 out of 100. But less important than the raw numbers is how 20 of the world’s largest apparel companies mostly scored low across the 22 indicators measured by the NGOs' researchers.

Across the board, one theme resulted in a relatively high score: monitoring. But the fact that auditing and disclosure efforts netted decent marks shows that the garment industry’s reliance on inspections and social audits is not nearly enough to stop the human rights abuses that mar this industry’s reputation.

The problem, as long reported in India, is that forced labor most often occurs amongst the subcontractors and smaller suppliers that are tucked in the furthest reaches of apparel companies’ supply chains.

For those looking for some signs of responsibility within the textile and garment sectors, Adidas'score provides some hope. The German athletic apparel company outpaced Gap in this assessment by a few steps. Researchers noted Adidas’ transparency and the copious amounts of data it has released over the years. Compared to other apparel companies, Adidas has far stricter requirements when it comes to the recruitment and treatment of workers hired through employment agencies and job brokers.

The company also launched efforts to raise awareness about modern-day slavery, and has been more successful than many of its peers at identifying risks of human rights violations. Adidas even went as far as assessing potential abuses from where materials such as rubber, cotton and leather are sourced.

Curiously, fast fashion brands such as H&M, Primark and Inditex (which operates Zara) make up the top tier within the NGOs' rankings. H&M, for example, received favorable reviews for its traceability standards and for leading as one of the more responsive companies to workers’ grievances within its supply chain. But the company could perform better when it comes to how it purchases materials from its suppliers, and could also do more to halt dodgy recruiting practices within its suppliers’ factories.

Luxury brands, however, are the laggards in KnowTheChain’s report. Companies including Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Prada and Kering (which is the parent company of Alexander McQueen and Gucci) were criticized on a variety of factors, from risk disclosures related to forced labor in garment manufacturing, to recruitment policies used at their suppliers' factories.

The report cast a particularly harsh light on Prada -- describing its leading practice as “none,” while alleging the design house has done virtually nothing on matters ranging from traceability to monitoring. Prada has long pledged that it has “respect” for human rights, but in these NGOs' view, it's done little other than post those words publicly on its website.

Rounding out the list were two Chinese apparel giants, knitwear manufacturer Shenzhou International and Belle International, maker of women’s shoes. Those companies have also accomplished little save for posting a few words on their websites, the NGOs found.

So what can companies do, other than find new ways in which to audit their factories and launch processes to ensure they are not buying from unethical suppliers and subcontractors?

Eliminating oppressive recruitment fees would be a start, insist the NGOs' researchers. One problem companies confront in their supply chains is that many job brokers charge their recruits hefty fees, which leaves the door open to more exploitation – and can even leave workers subjected to debt bondage.

Apparel companies could also do more to share grievance procedures with their workers, as only 4 of the 20 companies surveyed had such a policy.

Over 20 years after human rights abuses in garment sweatshops rocked the apparel industry, improvement in the sector's respect for human rights still has a long road ahead.

“The fast-growing garment sector can create important opportunities for its 60 million workers worldwide – many of whom are women,” said Annabel Short, deputy director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. “Yet far too many remain exploited, including in situations of forced labor.”

Image credit: ILO/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye