The $450 billion global fashion industry is one of the most important sectors of the global economy that creates jobs and clothes for people all over the world. It employs over 25 million workers in over 100 countries. The reality of this industry is that many individual producers in the developing countries work long hours under strenuous conditions for pennies on the dollar, far less than a living wage. However, there exist many unacceptable working conditions which will be illustrate in the following.
A major concern among garment workers are long working hours and forced overtime. Employees normally have to work between 10 to 12 hours, sometimes 16 to 18 hours a day. When a factory faces order deadlines, working hours get longer. Chinese workers were frequently working a seven-day week in peak seasons and sometimes they sit working non-stop for 13 to 14 hours a day. They sew until their arms feel sore and stiff. In Thailand garment employees sometimes have to work a day shift and a night shift. Overtime is usually obligatory and if workers cannot work the additional hours they face penalties, verbal abuse and dismissals.
Another bad working condition is the handling with the workers health and safety. Eye strain, exhaustion and debilitating overuse injuries occur because of poor ergonomics (how well a job task fits a worker’s body), long hours and constant pressure to meet production workload. The illnesses are often undiagnosed and untreated. If employees take some time to get medical care or to recover from an injury or illness, they may experience cuts in wages or also be fired. In many factories, workers do not receive clean drinking water nor are they allowed to use the toilet when they need to. The reproductive health may be harmed by exposure to chemicals, heat, noise, overwork and exhaustion. In Bangladesh around 200 workers have died and many more have been injured in garment factories fires between June 2004 and June 2006. There were no emergency exits, people were trapped in the factories and most died in a mass panic. The same happened during a fire in a garment factory at the end of 2012 where 112 people were killed in Bangladesh.
In some garment factories, women who are applying for work, are asked if they are married, going out with a man and planning to have children. They reason for it is that some employers only hire unmarried women with no children and sometimes women must sign an agreement not to get pregnant as long as she works at the factory. Pregnant workers suffer verbal abuse, higher production rates, longer work hours and more difficult tasks such as standing instead sitting or working in a hotter area. Furthermore, women are prevented from taking maternity leave or pay if they return to work after the baby’s birth.
Supervisors, employers, the police, state security forces, strike breakers and others use frequently violence against workers. Especially women experience verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace. Besides, they fear assault and rape on the way home from the factory at late night.
Factories workers often do not receive regular employment contracts. So they have no means of compensation if their employers fail to respect labour laws like minimum wages, working hours, overtime payment, health benefits and other ones. Especially immigrants do not get contracts and so they are not accepted as normal in the industry. The worst-treated are the temporary workers, because they are hired with a temporary contract which is then renewed continuously to avoid legal responsibilities like health insurance. This is particularly common in Indonesia.
Today, American citizens simply cannot know the working conditions of the factories that make the products they buy. We cannot know how the chemicals, tools, and technologies in these workplaces affect workers. Some brave workers publicize their conditions, and investigative institutions such as Human Rights Watch expose some of the worst violations, but there is an enormous knowledge gap.
This is hugely beneficial for corporations who want to keep us ignorant of their activities. We know about extreme incidents such as the Rana Plaza collapse that capture the world’s attention, however briefly, or when workers get so fed up with the conditions that they strike long enough and loud enough to get the Western world’s attention. But the day-to-day disasters that maim or kill a single worker or the accumulation of lead in workers’ bodies—those go almost completely unreported.
Much of that has taken place in the apparel industry, which has replicated Triangle-era conditions in sweatshops around the world. That it continues targeting women for this exploitative work is hardly surprising, as garment manufacturers did this in New England and the South in the twentieth century. Women need and want to work. For women in the developing world, work can be empowering, providing extra income, independence, or a way to escape an abusive relationship. Theoretically, American companies could provide this empowerment if they paid women a decent wage and employed them in clean factories that did not collapse or catch fire. But as geographer Melissa Wright has noted, employers see these women as “disposable,” workers to wring every ounce of profit from and then throw their “worthless” bodies out like garbage.