Slavery is Still Happening Today, and the Proof is in Your Closet
Have you ever thought about how privileged people are, myself included, to be born into G20 countries? How lucky are we to live in countries where one can quite realistically hope and dream for a bright future? Where possibilities are seemingly endless and freedom is already in our possession? Although there are flaws in our political systems, most people here do have basic human rights, our countries have significant economic power, and we always have at least a chance for justice.
Our ignorance has allowed us to buy into a system built on human rights violations.
Unfortunately, many people don't have this privilege. They don't get to explore the possibilities that freedom and economic power so easily offer us. In fact, it's the polar opposite. The reality is that we, as citizens of G20 countries, exploit (consciously or not) the lack of freedom faced by others across our world all in service of our own overconsumption of consumer goods. This system—that we are actively benefiting from—is modern slavery.
It's Time to Wake Up and Stop Being Ignorant to Modern Slavery
So what is modern slavery exactly? Modern slavery refers to situations where one person (or business entity) has taken away another person's freedom. Their freedom to control their body, their freedom to choose their work, or their freedom to stop working in unsafe or exploitive environments. It's slavery as we've always known it in an environment and time that we've never seen or been able to admit to ourselves. Technically the term has no legal definition but includes crimes such as human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, and the use of child labor.
These all may seem like faraway issues to you. You've never seen these people—the victims of modern slavery—nor do you have to think of them on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this is the first time you're hearing about all of this. You must be quite shocked. You may even be horrified to learn that you are an active (if unwitting) benefactor of this system. But it's true. Because one of the largest perpetrators of modern slavery is an industry that you undoubtedly participate in: the fashion industry.
Modern slavery refers to situations where one person (or business entity) has taken away another person's freedom.
Let's take a closer look at the statistics. According to the Global Slavery Index's 2018 report, $127.7 billion worth of garments that are imported annually to G20 countries include modern slavery within their supply chain. These groups of nations account for 80% of world trade. In the UK alone, $18 billion worth of products are at risk of supporting modern slavery, these products are from UK brands that simply manufacture abroad. These imports help underwrite a global economy that has trapped 40.3 million people in modern slavery, 80% of, which are women and girls.
This means that in developed nations, you and I have, in one way or another, supported modern slavery through our purchases. Our ignorance has allowed us to buy into a system built on human rights violations.
Fast Fashion and Modern Slavery
The gilded veneer of fashion culture has always been a stage for socialites and other elites to bask in the glitz and glamour that masks the industry's true, insidious nature. But the reality is far from what this facade portrays. The reality is a dark underworld of misery, despair, and human rights violations.
Since the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory rocked the world and claimed the lives of over 1,000 garment workers, very little if anything has changed. Our clothes are still being made by some of the poorest, undervalued, and overworked people in the world.
Slave labor sneaks into the fashion industry in untold ways, from cotton pickers who are kept in debt bondage by their employers to children who are lured into coerced factory labor via promises of free education. Living a life of fear and violence, these people are exploited and made to work around the clock to meet the unrealistic demands of corporate consumerism.
The Human Rights Watch reported that In certain underdeveloped countries, governments pull over 1 million children out of school to harvest cotton for production. With "workers" toiling around the clock (up to 14 hour days), factories are still paying less than the national minimum wage. In places such as Bangladesh, that amount represents a fifth of the living wage and barely allows these people to survive and cover basic costs such as healthcare, food, and rent.
On top of their meager pay, these people are often working in facilities with no ventilation—breathing in toxic substances and inhaling fiber dust in already unsafe buildings. These are real people, particularly women and children, who are actively being exploited every day. There are 168 million children in the world, today, who are forced to work. They have no union or representation to address these inhumane working conditions. They are trapped.
The Marketing Machine Obscuring the Truth of Modern Slavery
Why does it not surprise me that during a worldwide pandemic major players in the fashion industry abuse their power and position in the market to continue exploiting workers and underpaying their staff?
Let's look at, for example, Boohoo. This brand is a social media phenomenon—paying influencers and celebrities alike to endorse their brand with a whopping £80 million annual marketing budget. The brand has grown each and every year and is now publicly valued at £5 billion. Along the way, they have also acquired majority shares in Pretty Little Thing, Nasty Gal, and Karren Millen. On June 19, they also snapped up high street brands Warehouse and Oasis from insolvency administration.
Additionally, just last month Boohoo was criticized by investors for the operation and timing of its new bonus scheme, which could see its executives receive a share of a £150 million bonus payout during a global pandemic and economic crisis. To add insult to injury, the executives already receive a £1.3 million salary.
With this much wealth, why does Boohoo prey on underprivileged, and often abused, workers when they clearly aren't short on cash? They do it because they can. It's as simple as that.
Modern Slavery is Closer to You Than You May Realize
I opened this article by discussing my privilege to have been born in a G20 country, but the fact is that this privilege only reaches some of us. Up to this point, I've addressed modern slavery as a somewhat far removed issue, one that we don't often experience or consider in our daily lives as G20 citizens.
However, it is not such a clear-cut case, particularly as it relates to Boohoo. Sweatshop slavery is happening right here—up north in the UK's "dark" fashion sweatshops. In this wealthy, powerful, privileged country, people are still being forced to work through lockdown to meet corporate demands earning between £3.50-4 per hour.
There are 168 million children in the world, today, who are forced to work. They have no union or representation to address these inhumane working conditions. They are trapped.
Where is the justice in this? Where is the freedom in this? Where is the hope for these people?
I just don't understand how influencers and celebrities are becoming increasingly wealthy through promoting these problematic brands without even considering who made these clothes. How can these companies think that paying a maximum of £4.50 per hour in sweatshops anywhere, let alone in our own backyard in Leicester, UK, is okay? And why are more consumers not asking these questions themselves?
The real question is, will the teenagers and young adults who are these brand's chief demographics wake up to this and publicly shift their purchasing behaviors away from brands like Boohoo. When will consumerism outgrow fast fashion and stop falling prey to the facade of marketing ploys that is obscuring a human rights crisis?
It's Time for Fashion Brands to Pay Up
And so the plot thickens. As if this issue wasn't big enough, in response to COVID-19, leading fashion brands canceled their prior factory orders and never paid for them, leaving in their wake financial devastation for the manufacturing workers themselves. Giant labels, like Nike, Gap, Levi's, Primark, Urban Outfitters, Topshop, Fashion Nova, Forever 21, Kendall and Kylie, and many more canceled orders as well as changing and delaying terms, therefore forcing many factories in Bangladesh and elsewhere to close. Millions of garment workers lost their jobs and were never even paid for the orders that got canceled.
Thankfully the #payup campaign launched by Remake caught global media attention. This attention forced these big brands to pay up for fear of losing public trust and faith in their companies and clothing.
This is just one example of the power of our voices. Don't forget, we do not need these brands. But these brands do need us. This power is so profound, it is a power that collectively raised $1 billion for suppliers in Bangladesh and $22 billion globally. There are still brands that haven't paid up, but when we stand united and fight for what's right, our world can change for us all.
The pay up campaign proves that we do have the power to change things, we just need to educate ourselves on this issue and hold brands accountable for their abhorrent labor practices. Modern slavery is real, and the very clothes in your closet are a testament to the fact, but they don't have to be.