The fashion industry is full of human rights abuses, and women, as they make up a large part of the workforce of this industry, are the brunt of most of it. But while these problems may seem a world away, this isn’t so far from our own past. Throughout the mid 19th century, female textile workers in the United States suffered poor working conditions and low pay, against which they protested.
In 1828, female textile workers in Dover, New Hampshire walked off the job protesting low wages and long working hours. Go back in history and you’ll find countless stories of textile bosses down south running manufacturing houses like the mafia and yet while it’s easy for us to brush that off as history, for much of the world, it’s an everyday reality.
Fast fashion has become very much connected to in a negative way to human rights issues, and here are nine ways that it plays out against women around the world.
1. Women work as slaves
In the 2012 Free2Work report on Apparel Industry trends, there is a spotlight on India. A global hub for textiles and manufacturing, there are many instances of child and forced labor in this industry. As the report points out, “In Tamil Nadu in southern India, young women are kept in what can amount to labor bondage through a practice dubbed the ‘Sumangali Scheme.’ The girls, some younger than 14, are paid less than the minimum wage for one to three years. After this work term is finished, the employer pays the withheld wages to the family as a lump sum to be used as a dowry.”
2. Girls start working at a very early age
The fashion and textile industry employs some 250 million children, as young as 5. Working this young means one thing: they’re not in school. Forced to work instead of being able to go to school limits their opportunities of social mobility. As female education is an integral part of sustainable development, this is detrimental to the global economy. It has been shown that an educated girl will reinvest 90% of her future income in her family and in turn, community. Putting girls in schools instead of factories is an investment in the success of communities and our global economy.
3. Women face severe gender discrimination
According to the Made in Vietnam report by the Worker’s Rights Consortium, “Women workers in Vietnam face pervasive pregnancy-based discrimination ranging from termination of employment to denial of statutory maternity benefits.” At one factory noted in the report, women were contractually required to not become pregnant for three years. That’s not just true in Vietnam, it’s a problem faced by women textile and garment workers from Brazil to Morocco. As a report by the United Nations Research Institute for for Social Development pointed out, “patriarchal forms of control are used by factory owners and managers to consolidate their power over women workers and to maximize production in their factories.”
4. Women are sexually harassed
Sexual abuse is a widespread problem in the fashion industry, both in textile and garment factories but also in the modeling world. As a report by the organization Better Work pointed out, “Sexual harassment remains high in factories because it is often large numbers of women, young, inexperienced and in some cases, illiterate, being supervised by a small number of men.” Looking at the textile industry in Jordan, they found that 20% of workers said that they had very little understanding of what constituted sexual harassment, even though 25% of the workers surveyed were concerned about behavior that could be classified as such. In China, it was reported that an overwhelming 70% of female workers at factories in Guangzhou in were sexually harassed. Sexual harassment is a flat out violation of worker’s rights.
5. Women are raped
In an article feature on Truthout, Haitian sweatshop workers talked about some of the work abuses that they face. Here is what one woman said about sexual abuse in the workplace: “In the factories, there’s a system that we call ‘give to me and I’ll give to you.’ It means that you have to agree to have sex with the supervisor or that person can blacklist you or get you fired. My supervisor was trying to seduce me, but I said no because I had a husband. So he fired me.”
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dhaka Police reports have shown that female garment workers make up 2-3% of the total population, but they account for 11% of rape cases. These rape cases are also linked to the high rate of suicide amongst female factory workers.
6. There is pregnancy discrimination
Honduras is the third largest exporter of clothes and textiles to the United States. While the textile industry is farily balanced when it comes to gender – women make up 53% of the industry – they face unfair discrimination. According to a report by the organization War on Want, “Women workers are also vulnerable to other rights abuses such as the denial of maternity leave, forced pregnancy tests and sexual harassment or violence. A compulsory requirement for women before taking a job is to undergo a medical assessment, in which particular attention is paid to whether a woman is pregnant. In these cases the women will be rejected.” Human Rights Watch has noted the same problems in Cambodia, calling on the Cambodian government to improve its enforcement of labor laws.
7. The fashion industry often promotes rape culture
There have been many examples of fashion ads showing women in compromising positions, most shockingly the 2013 advertising campaign of Lebanese designer Johnny Farah promoting his line of hand bags, which he did by showing a woman wearing a bag over her head while a man stood behind her, pulling on a belt wrapped around her neck.
8. Working conditions are so bad, women pass out at work
Working conditions are so bad in Cambodia, where about 90% of the textile and garment industry is female, that there are regular episodes of mass faintings, last year in a factory that produces Puma and Adidas attire. According to the Global Post, “Government statistics suggest that, since 2011, between 1,500 and 2,000 Cambodian factory workers have fainted each year — often in groups of 100 or more.”
9. Many women don’t even know that they have rights
Part of solving the problem is empowering women textile workers, so that they too can fight for their own rights. In Bangladesh, the AWAJ Foundation works hard to ensure that female factory workers know their rights, so that they can advocate for them. The foundation was started by Nazma Akter, who when she was 14 joined fellow garment workers in a protest against working conditions in her factory, and was beaten up and tear-gassed by police. The worked hard to increase the minimum wage for textile workers in Bangladesh from €16 to €30 per month, and has empowered many women to stand up for their rights.
To learn more about how brands are taking on women’s rights, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.