Exploring Human Trafficking in the Textile Industry

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SEATTLE, Washington — Human trafficking in the textile industry is a grave and unfortunate phenomenon. Trafficking is defined as a person being forced, misled or coerced to work, usually in unfavorable or even dangerous conditions. Sometimes workers are physically confined in locked workplaces, physically or sexually abused, illegally surveilled by their employer or denied healthcare. Moreover, coercion occurs in forced labor workplaces when employers threaten workers with the disclosure of their immigration status, their termination if they speak out against poor conditions or the mishandling of essential documents.

Low-profit margins make the textile manufacturing industry particularly vulnerable to trafficking as manufacturing companies are pressured to compete with low offshore wages. Moreover, because the production system is tiered, this can mean that there is little to no workplace supervision by a third-party that would care if employees are treated fairly and equally.

Human Trafficking in the Textile Industry

Trafficking is the third-largest criminal industry in the world, earning an estimated 40 billion dollars a year. Clothing manufacturing is one of the sectors with the most trafficking as the lack of transparency about where clothing is made allows underground networks of trafficking to continue. For example, in 2012, in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, the government forced more than 1 million people to pick cotton, including children. In India, fake apprenticeship set-ups mislead people into working 10 to 12 hours per day in poor conditions for very little pay. In Cambodia, the government established a Specialized Economic Zone that suspends labor laws and human rights, increasing profit margins and attracting foreign entities’ interest.

Human Trafficking in Cambodia

The Cambodian garment industry has one of the highest rates of human trafficking. Protests for increased wages resulted in marginal increases and were met with police opening fire on crowds. Even with the slight pay increase, the average textile worker’s salary in Cambodia remains less than half of a living wage. Moreover, the working conditions can often be deplorable. For example, mass faintings have occurred due to fume inhalation, and workers are often barred from eating, using the bathroom or taking a break.

Barriers to union organizing are one of the ways human trafficking remains possible today. When people on short-term contracts try to unionize, they can be quickly fired. They can be threatened with termination at any time. Newly elected union officers are bribed and harassed by corrupt owners of manufacturing countries. Moreover, union applications are often arbitrarily denied or delayed by the Cambodian government, giving business owners time to retaliate. Bribery also occurs on the regulatory side of things; the “envelope system” is slang for when an envelope of money can buy a factory manager a favorable report.

Trafficking Requires Secrecy

The textile industry is one of the most managed industries, but these regulations do not extend to the workers. The tiered production system makes secrecy thrive as the unknown suppliers of materials, threads and labor create the perfect environment for exploitation and trafficking.

A straightforward way to decrease the incidence of trafficking would be to make it mandatory for textile businesses to publish their supply chains, making routine investigations possible publicly.

Who stands to gain?

Those who reap the most benefits from human trafficking are billion-dollar businesses like Walmart, Zara and H&M. By contracting to outside countries, these huge conglomerates can exploit cheap labor. They outsource the responsibility for the working conditions of the people who produce their products.

This practice begets itself. The more outsourcing occurs, and the cheaper the cost of outsourced labor, the more competing businesses are pressured to outsource cheap labor, which, in turn, exploits workers. Additionally, national labor is forced to compete with this international exploitation, and already improvised countries are encouraged to keep labor costs low.

What is the solution?

Though human trafficking runs rampant, especially in the textile industry, there are several ways that governments, employers and concerned citizens can work to prevent this horrible crime from occurring. One might think they are not complicit, yet organizations like Slavery Footprint disprove that. By taking the quick Slavery Footprint quiz, one can gauge precisely how much forced free labor they benefit from if you’re a business owner and the amount of forced labor used to create a product if you’re a consumer.

Though fast fashion is appealing as it allows people to stay on trend while spending little money, it directly contributes to human trafficking. According to the International Labor Organization, there are 170 million children subjected to child labor worldwide, and many of them are estimated to be trafficked into the textile industry. The cycle of cheap production involved in the textile industry has resulted in terrible tragedies. For example, in 2013, the Rana Plaza Factory in Bangladesh collapsed because it was poorly built and overcrowded. As a result, 1,138 people died, and approximately 2,500 injured.

In conclusion, to prevent the exploitation, injustice and inadvertent killing of garment workers in the textile industry, many of whom are trafficked into those jobs, one must purchase clothing from brands transparent about its manufacturing process.

Looking Ahead

Clothing production has seen an almost two-fold increase in the last 15 years. This means an increasing demand for rapidly changing fashions can only be met with cheap or free labor. The world’s most impoverished populations pay the cost for this rise in demand and are often coerced into manufacturing jobs with false promises, the threat of deportation or unemployment. Not to mention, human trafficking in the textile industry affects not only adults but also children worldwide.

To prevent this horrible phenomenon from increasing, nonprofit humanitarian organizations raise awareness of human trafficking in the textile industry. Moreover, people worldwide can support the fight against human trafficking by buying fewer clothing items or buy from brands that are transparent about their manufacturing origins. Additionally, reselling or purchasing used clothing could decrease the incidence of human trafficking in the textile industry. Although the incidence of human trafficking in the textile industry is widespread and has an economic stronghold in the fashion industry, it can be prevented through conscious consumption and advocacy.

—Elise Ghitman
Photo: Flickr

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