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Despite Efforts, Forced Labor Still Embedded in Apparel

By Nithin Coca

Forced labor remains a problem in many industries, with global textiles and garments being no exception. Despite considerable progress in the last few years due to rising awareness, forced labor still occurs in cotton fields and factories across the world, connected to us by the realities of modern global supply chains.

The basics: What is forced labor?

Forced labor is, quite simply, the use of coercion to force people to work for little or no pay. It can take the form of modern day slavery, but also perpetuates itself through less overt practices such as debt bondage – where workers are forced to work to pay off absurdly high-interest loans with no other recourse.

In the garment industry, forced labor is most commonly found in two areas. One is at the beginning of the supply chain: Labor-intensive crops, such as cotton, often require copious work for cultivation and harvest. And forced labor is not uncommon in the fields.

"In countries where rule of law is weak or corruption is high, and where there's agricultural production [of crops] such as cotton, there is a high risk that forced labor is something that's happening," Kilian Moote, director of KnowTheChain.org, a project of Humanity United, told TriplePundit.

Forced labor happens in fields around the world, but one of the worst scenarios unfolds in Uzbekistan, a dictatorial country in Central Asia. Cotton harvesting season turns huge parts of the nation into vast forced-labor plantations, with Uzbek cotton being exported to East Asia and, from there, around the world.

Forced labor is also pervasive in garment factories, where fabrics are transformed into the countless pieces of apparel we wear every day. Few factories remain in developed, Global North countries these days, with cheap labor costs having resulted in the mass migration of garment labor into Asia and, increasingly, Africa. It is generally easier to understand forced labor at this level, Moote told us.

"There is a better understanding [of forced labor] as it related to the final stage of manufacturing because there's a greater degree of visibility about how forced labor is connected to specific brands or companies," he explained.

In fact, advocacy groups found countless instances of forced labor in factories, but the sheer complexity of the industry makes it hard to paint broad pictures. Factories that treat workers well can be found in the same regions as those using forced labor. And from the outside, it can be nearly impossible tell the difference. The problem is that, too often, products created from both good and bad factories end up in the same supply chain – and, ultimately, in your local mall.

Supply chains and forced labor

The final piece of the puzzle is the increasing interconnections between factories and farms around the world and consumers in developed countries like the United States. The reality is this: We live in a globalized world. Several decades ago, a local market would only include products made within the region, or, at most, nationally. Today, our local grocery store -- no matter how big or small -- carries countless products made in quite possibly in every country in the world.

Apparel companies rely on a huge mix of suppliers to provide the materials that make up the products we buy in department stores and malls. In an industry in which profit margins are thin, and competition is rife, many choose to purchase from the cheapest suppliers. But that low cost comes with a high price for workers.

Another factor is that companies often do not know who their suppliers' suppliers are. And, too often, they don't care. That means while the suppliers from which a company directly purchases materials may not use forced labor, it may exist further down the supply chain, where the brand or company has little insight.

"Companies are being more transparent with who their suppliers are," Moote said. "Now the next step ... is How do we begin looking at that second tier or deeper – input suppliers, subcontractors?"

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, because all supply chains are not created equal. Some companies, like Nike -- which made serious changes after activists discovered child labor in its supply chain -- have a deep understanding of their suppliers. But it is a fact that forced labor exists in the global apparel industry – and until it is stopped everywhere, it impacts all companies, both good and bad. That means we need greater collaboration as well, something that is not happening enough thus far.

"Individual brands need to understand what collaboration means in their sector," Moote insisted. "And they have to move beyond this business fear that collaboration can't happen."

Humanity United and its many allies hope to play a role in fostering deep collaboration in the industry. Understanding the problem – and its existence – is the first step. Now, advocates from the for-profit and nonprofit sectors need to come together to figure out how best to implement better policies and practices that can put at end to forced labor in the garment industry. We must ensure that in the future, when we go into a mall, all the products we find are 100 percent ethical.

Image credit: Pshittig via Pixabay

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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