Hidden Costs in Haute Couture: Illuminating the Consequences of Cheap Manufacturing in the Fashion Industry

*content notice: mention of sexual assault

“I was trapped. It was pitch black and there was no air. I cried for my mother but all I could hear were the cries of my colleagues. Several dead bodies were lying around me. I spent two days under the rubble craving water. I did not know when it was day or when it was night. It was all the same to me under the rubble. And they never found my mother’s body.”

Mossammat Rebecca Khatun, a survivor of the 2013 garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, details her anguishing terror and loss to BBC News. Accounts like hers – of losing limbs and family members in the fiery rubble of Rana Plaza factory – emblazoned front pages around the world, and elicited international compassion for the plight of the thousands of workers who were crushed and killed. In this moment of global attention, the voices of survivors illuminated an oft-forgotten human rights crisis: the exploitation of garment laborers, who toil in unsafe conditions for paltry wages to make clothes for Western shoppers.

Even after outcry following the factory’s collapse, the average Bangladeshi garment worker only makes $68 per month. To highlight a lifestyle disparity, a point of comparison: the average American household throws away 68 pounds of clothing per year. This high turnover of trends and clothes in the West perpetuates a need for laborers to relentlessly mass-manufacture billions of goods. A globalizing economy increases opportunities for fashion corporations to export work overseas, where fewer unions and labor protections exist, and political or economic instability heighten susceptibility to exploitative labor conditions. Corporations cut production costs and increase their profit margins by disregarding necessary maintenance in overseas factories and compensating laborers with meager wages. Illustrating this reliance on global supply chains, clothing giants from the US, Canada, and Europe – including J.C. Penny, Benetton, Sears, Mango, and Wal-mart – sourced clothing from the Dhaka factory. In 2011, Ron Johnson, CEO of J.C. Penny and one of the highest paid businessmen in the fashion industry, pocketed a jarring $53,281,505 – a number which looms staggeringly above the $68/month incurred by his Bangladeshi employees.

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Over a year after the collapse of Rana Plaza factory, the media spotlight has shifted focus, and the victims have been consequently forgotten. The corporations responsible for the factory’s conditions promised $40 million to the families of the victims, but not even half has been paid. J.C. Penny has paid nothing. But when we look beyond the once-sensationalized cases of the 1,129 workers killed and additional 2,500 injured in Dhaka, we see the millions of other garment laborers around the world struggling unnoticed through similarly exploitative conditions, long hours, and nominal wages.

The collapse of Rana Plaza elucidates the tip of a pressing, worldwide human rights violation. Made in a Free World, a non-profit focused on eradicating human trafficking in fashion supply chains, reports that in Uzbekistan, 1.5 million people forcibly harvest cotton that constitutes the fibers of cheap clothes around the world. Of the more than 250 million children who work worldwide, many labor in garment sweatshops. Made in a Free World also asserts that child laborers harvest 40% of all gold mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a country in which mineral extraction constitutes 90% of national revenue. Investigators have unearthed similar statistics of slave-based gold mining in Peru, one of the world’s leaders in gold production. A recent report compiled by US labor-rights organization, Verite, described children under the age of ten who work long days in exchange for a mat to sleep on and measly food. The report contends that these child laborers face high risks of mercury poisoning, the girls endure elevated rates of sexual assault, and overseers threaten workers with violence. However, as the fourth-largest producer of gold, these Peruvian slave-mined minerals adorn jewelry across the globe. In addition to hazardous workplace conditions, prolonged hours, and infinitesimal wages, garment laborers at the bottom of the supply chain rarely receive benefits; the International Labor Rights Forum indicates that sweatshop workers seldom secure compensation for sick days or work-based injuries.

Charles Kernaghan, Director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, highlights the reality of conditions in a sweatshop in northern Bengal that make sweaters for expensive European lines: “It was one of the worst factories we’ve seen. There was child labor, people were being beaten, cheated of their wages — and wages were very, very low. Male supervisors would constantly press young women to have sex with them.” Kernaghan further reports that when laborers organized to protest the conditions, police officers surrounded them, beat them, and tortured their leaders. Sweatshop owners fired anyone who picketed.

In another report, Charles Kernaghan assessed the labor conditions in the largest garment factory in Jordan, where he described management who “hired young women from Asia, stripped them of their passports, forced them to work grueling hours for awful pay under a managerial regime that subjected them to routine rape. One woman hung herself in the factory’s bathroom with her own scarf after allegedly being raped at the hands of a manager.” While reports of rapes and mysterious disappearances from the site persist, Wal-mart, the factory’s top customer, continues to purchase nearly 75% of their products. Corporations are often aware of exploitation in the lower rungs of their supply chains but unwilling to change convenient, cost-cutting practices.

We must take action to hold the corporations accountable. Slavery and exploitation permeates many American lives through our consumption of cheap, mass-manufactured, internationally produced goods. Labor organizations, anti-human trafficking agencies, and governmental departments work to dismantle corruption that allows for labor exploitation to continue, but as consumers and voters, we also hold power to fight human rights violations in the garment industry. We have the mechanisms to challenge inhumane labor practices and remove the shackles of human trafficking, but in order to elicit change, we need to incite widespread commitment to the cause. If we aspire to live in a sweatshop-free world, we must start with our everyday conversations, shopping lists, and actions. Boycott exploitative corporation when financially able, join labor movements, pressure accountability for cleaner supply chains, and vote for legislation that protects laborers. Through our collective action, we work towards positive systemic change and a freer future.

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