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Fashion Industry Falling Short on Addressing Labor Abuses

Words by Nithin Coca
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A new report from the nonprofit KnowTheChain measured 43 of the world’s largest clothing and footwear companies' efforts to address forced labor, and concluded the industry was not making enough progress. KnowTheChain’s researchers made the point that the average score was only 37 out of a possible 100, with more than two-thirds of companies surveyed scoring below 50. While this is a marginal improvement from the nonprofit’s 2016 report, this most recent survey made it clear it believed such efforts have been too little and too slow.

“The sector as a whole isn’t doing enough,” said Kilian Moote, KnowTheChain project director in an interview with TriplePundit. “For example, 18 companies scored zero on factors related to recruitment.”

Forced labor is among the human rights problems that have been well-documented across the textile and apparel industry’s global supply chain. Whether it’s slavery in cotton fields, human trafficking of factory workers or the still-widespread use of child labor, there is still a lot that companies must address to ensure their supply chains are free of labor abuses. And it is a huge challenge that is a long way from being solved, as the International Labor Organization estimated in 2016 that 25 million people were working in forced labor at any moment in time.

The root cause of these abuses are certain accepted practices, such as the one Killian mentioned above – recruitment, namely, the pervasive use of agencies to find workers for factories and workshops. These agencies often charge migrant workers large fees just to land a job, and there is ample evidence that these high fees push poor migrants, many of whom take on debt in order to secure work, into forced labor situations.

“[There is] growing acknowledgment that no worker should have to pay to work today, particularly in a world where more and more workers are migrating specifically for work,” said Moote. In fact, the companies that scored highest on the rankings, adidas and Lululemon, are unique in that they require direct employment of all workers across the supply chain – a requirement that KnowTheChain believes other companies should consider implementing.

Another key challenge that has been an obstacle to progress is the complexity of supply chains, and the interconnectedness of the industry. Namely, most major global brands engage the same suppliers, or source from the same regions where textile factories and labor abuses are rampant, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia or Vietnam. Namely, one company can only do so much to solve this problem.

“What we would like to see is the sector as a whole start moving to address certain fundamental risks,” said Moote. 

On this front, there are optimistic signs that things will get better in the coming years. In October, the American Apparel and Footwear Association, which represents more than 1,000 global name brands, retailers, and manufacturers, announced a commitment with the Fair Labor Association to address potential forced labor risks in their supply chains. 

“This commitment shows that our industry does not tolerate forced labor, [and] it also shows our customers that we take this issue seriously and are proactively working together...to initiate measures to ensure these values are respected throughout the supply chain,” said Rick Helfenbein, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, in a press statement.

For Moote, commitments like this can really make a difference. “What we really need to see is greater opportunity for engagement and collaboration among what are traditionally seen as competitors,” said Moote. “It’s not a unilateral issue that you can singularly address; we need to see collective action on these deep seeded risks.”

KnowTheChain says it will continue to highlight what is working, and what’s not, and track progress on a goal that all of us must share – eliminating forced labor from the apparel and footwear supply chain. Hopefully, when the next report comes out, we’ll see more progress towards ending forced labor in global apparel and footwear supply chains.

Image credit: NYU Stern BHR/Flickr

Nithin Coca

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

Read more stories by Nithin Coca