Ah, the feel of wrapping your body in a new garment. For many people there is something supremely satisfying about purchasing and donning a brand new piece of clothing. It both feeds and titillates the consumer within us. For some people it creates a sense of feeling affluent and important. And for many people there is an additional thrill if the clothing seemed cheap or if they feel like they got a good deal on it.

But in most cases, that cheapness at the consumer end comes at a very high prices for the people who spun the cotton, sewed the panels, added the embroidery, or in some way built those garments. The millions of people all over the world who put their blood, sweat, tears, and in some instances lives into the clothes we get at a bargain are not applauding our shopping savvy.

Slavery is a heavy word, and in this age of the illusion of equality no one wants to believe that it still exists at all, let alone that their choices and lifestyle might be a causative factor in the perpetuation of contemporary slavery. But it is still real, and slavery shows up in the everyday lives of people all over the world in surprising and pernicious ways.

Forced Labor More Common Than You Want to Believe

While millions of people are entrenched in slavery in some form or other, including human sex trafficking and migrant crop harvesting, the most prevalent form of modern forced labor is in the clothing industry. While reports vary amongst different sources, there are at least 12.3 million and potentially upwards of 29 million people in forced labor globally. Numbers fluctuate as new people are forced into service daily, and the means to record such information are limited.

Fabricating clothing is a very labor-intensive process. The cotton or other loose fiber must be spun into thread and woven together to make fabric, which is then cut into pieces and stitched together. If you have ever tried to repair a tear or replace a button you understand a little of the time-consuming nature of sewing. It requires a large workforce that receives minimal pay to produce clothes at a price most consumers will accept, and the massive amount of garments that are produced each day. This burden of cost and labor is passed on to the uneducated workers with seemingly no resources who, through force, coercion, or hopelessness, find themselves working in factories at least ten hours a day, seven days a week, for months, years, or the rest of their lives.

What makes it forced labor instead of just menial work is the deplorable conditions in which people are forced to work and live, the fact that the wages do not represent the cost of living in those places and are often not even paid to the workers, and the fact that many of the workers are not free to leave the premises or request changes in their unjust conditions.

Forced garment labor is characterized by several factors, one or all of which may be present in varying degrees in different facilities. These factors include:

Excessively long work-days Workers in the garment industry are frequently required to work at least ten hours per day, sometimes more. They will sometimes work long into the night to meet a quota, at peril of not being paid for the days work at all if they do not reach an impossibly high goal. They are reprimanded or even punished for taking breaks, told such things as Dont go to the toilet, you need to sew faster.

Unpaid forced overtime While contracts may state that people will work a set number of hours per week, the reality is often much greater. People may be required to work as many as 76 or 80 hours in a week, to earn the equivalent of 10 to 12 dollars, just pennies per hour.

No days off In most instances workers are not allowed to take days off even if they are sick. If they are so ill that they are actually unable to work, they are usually fired without being paid for the work they had done, or more time is added to their contracts if they are in debt bondage.

Child laborers While most companies and countries claim that they are against child labor, the truth is that over a third of garment workers are children. They are routinely paid less than adult laborers, if they are paid at all. Some parents sell their children to factories out of desperation, in the hopes that they will have a better life after the contract is over.

Inability to leave the worksite Many laborers are forcibly confined to hostels that are surrounded by high walls and patrolled by guards. This is especially true of the cotton workers in southern India, girls aged 14-18 who are not permitted to leave during the length of their three year contracts, and only occasionally allowed short phone calls to their parents that are monitored by security staff. But all over the world many garment laborers end up in something that resembles internment camps, forced to live and work in cramped unhygienic quarters.

Lack of grievance mechanisms or unions In an equitable workplace, workers are given a system through which they can report grievances. In forced labor, no such system is in place. Workers are not allowed to form unions and no one will listen to their requests or complaints about the workload or conditions. Minorities, immigrants, women and children, people who cannot read, and people in extreme poverty are more susceptible to forced labor recruitment and enslavement.

Violence or threat of punishment In some areas, workers who attempt to have their wages raised or their conditions improved are met with violence. In Cambodia, laborers who protest their working conditions are routinely shot by police. In lesser instances workers are threatened that they will lose their pay if they go to the bathroom or complain.

Workers dependent on employer or agent for basic needs Some laborers are immigrants or in some other way disenfranchised. They are unable to feed, clothe, or shelter themselves because they do not speak the local language or are in the country illegally. This sets the stage for rampant human rights violations.

Lack of access to health care In the residential workplaces there is often an abhorrent lack of medical care, which means that getting ill on the job is sometimes a death sentence that could have been avoided if proper care had been provided.

Lack of accounting of hours and pay Many garment workers are paid in cash and hours are not recorded, so there is no way to prove that they are receiving the proper wages for the hours worked. Some firms will record fewer hours than were worked to pass governmental and corporate audits, and then pocket the difference.

Failure to pay wages The standard pay for garment workers is about one-third of the minimum wage in those countries. As most garment workers are required to perform forced overtime, their overall income is grossly minimal. This injurious practice is made even worse by the fact that many overseers find ways to cheat their workers out of pay, either by claiming that they have not completed the work or contract as required, or just kicking them out of the factory with no explanation.

Internment Camps for the Desperate and Dying

For some people, garment work is a death sentence. The long hours, toxic materials, hot cramped conditions, poor hygiene, bad food, and lack of health care combine to sap the life out of people. Many workers contract bladder and urinary tract infections because they are not allowed to go to the bathroom as needed. Working with cotton is a health hazard, as the microscopic fibers can enter and cut the lungs, causing severe respiratory problems including TB. Many of the deaths at Indian factories are due to respiratory diseases caused by working with cotton in poorly ventilated rooms. People routinely faint or suffer heat stroke.

And the ramshackle factories are often death traps themselves, poorly constructed and prone to fire and collapse. The most notorious instance is the Bangladeshi factory that collapsed in 2013, killing 1,129 people and injuring more than 2,500 people.

But My Favorite Brand Doesnt Use Slavery

Even if you know that garment slavery happens, it easy to take a NIMBY (not in my backyard) approach. We can convince ourselves that our brands and the stores we frequent would never use slave labor to produce their clothing. But top brands in first world nations use the cheap labor available in developing nations (and sometimes in factories in their own slums) to make a pretty profit.

The following brands are dependent on forced labor at some point in their supply line, from spinning the cotton to assembling the clothing to detailing the final products:

Gap, Marks & Spencer, Nike, H&M, Victorias Secret, SP Apparel, Adidas, Levi Strauss, Mothercare, Bannari Amman, Wal-mart, Tesco, SCM, Eastman and Prem Group. This table lists the companies supplied with garments from the forced-labor sector of southern India alone.

How to Avoid Slave Labor in Your Clothes

Modern consumers vote with our dollars. Political action is important, and calling companies to task for turning a blind eye to slavery that increases their profit margins is necessary. But for most of us, the most accessible way to end forced labor in the clothing industry is to stop buying products made by companies that profit from it. With the current system, the onus is on you, the consumer, to seek out clothing that is made in responsible ways, seed to store, and reuse readily available resources whenever possible.

Slave labor is no longer as obvious as it once was, as most companies understand it is bad for PR. But it still happens in undocumented factories in various parts of the supply line. So it is important to source clothes from companies that have a high degree of transparency and fewer moving parts to track. Buy items that are produced with fair-trade labor, from companies that can supply detailed information about their manufacturing conditions. The few companies that are going the distance to ensure there is no slavery in their garments usually make a point of informing consumers of their efforts. One such company is Threads for Thought.

Websites like Free2Work and Slavery Footprint can help you learn if the clothes you wear and products you use are made by forced labor. In general, look for companies dedicated to creating sustainable and cruelty free clothes, preferably that have documentation to backup their commitment to providing clothes that are made by well-treated and fairly-paid adults, all the way through the supply chain.

The ethos of shop local is as applicable to clothes as it is to food. Ideally get your clothes from smaller local companies that are contributing to the economy in your area by hiring local workers and paying a fair living wage. Yes, you will probably pay more than you might be used to for these clothes, but they will be of high quality and will not carry the stench of slavery in every stitch.

Another step in reducing clothing-based slavery and overall consumption is to recycle clothes in your community. Neighbors, friends, and community organizations can throw clothing swaps, where people bring their used but still wearable clothes to share with each other and receive new to you clothes, and the leftovers are donated to a charity. You can also get perfectly functional used clothing in most parts of the world at secondhand stores.

Slavery is an ancient evil that has managed to survive to the modern day. While contemporary slaves do not wear literal chains, they are bound to an economy that does not fairly value their work or their lives. Our responsibility as conscientious human beings is to do our best to end garment slavery, or at least end our complicity in it, by choosing to only purchase clothes that are made by fairly treated and paid adult workers.


Slavery on the High Street
The Guardian
Assessing Atrocity