A woman at work. On the exploitation of women in the fashion industry

"Express your independence through fashion," the headlines of colorful magazines scream. It is a pity, however, that they remain silent when it is necessary to shout out loud: "when you wear clothes from chain stores, you say yes to enslavement".

Take a piece of paper. Make a list of ten people who are close to you. First write names of men, then women’s. Take the scissors. Cut off eight names starting from the end. Tear the paper apart, make a ball from it and throw it away. Why? Because it's the easiest way to show that about 80% of the fashion industry workers, proportionally as many as the names you have just destroyed, are women. Their fate in the fast fashion industry is not much different from the fate of the paper that is now laying at the bottom of the bin.

Who makes your clothes?

About 75 million people work in the fashion industry. 80% of them, that is about 60 million, are women. Is that a lot? "Only" one million less than the population of Italy. Imagine that overnight, this country known mostly for carefree vacations turns into a clothing factory covered with sheet metal. Why is this comparison so important? Because when we have a look at the numbers a little more closely, we will discover that each number stands a woman. She is usually between eighteen and twenty-four years old. It is she, or one of her female colleagues, who is subjected to physical, psychological and sexual violence, exploitation and labor rights violations while sewing clothes for fast fashion brands. Most of those who make low-quality clothes (although you have to be vigilant here because cheap labor is also used by so-called luxury brands) earn less than three dollars a day. Inspections, if any, show that even fourteen-year-old girls are employed in factories. The time they should dedicate to learning and self development is spent on satisfying... our fashion fantasies – making clothes that will probably end up in the trash after one season..

Hawana, Kuba. Zdj. Norbert Höldin, Pixabay
Hawana, Kuba. Zdj. Norbert Höldin, Pixabay

Working with no choice

Workers in low-cost sewing factories make clothes, often in conditions that threaten their health and lives (it is worth mentioning here the history of the Rana Plaza factory). They spend 60 (and sometimes more) hours a week in overheated halls with poor lighting and limited access to water and fresh air. In the most dangerous areas, escape routes and emergency exits are blocked and fire extinguishers are out of order. A Labor Behind the Label report on working conditions in fashion factories in Cambodia found that poor ventilation, very high temperatures, lack of access to water, overwork, and exposure to chemicals lead to frequent fainting and malnutrition among workers. In Ethiopia, garment workers earn as little as US$26 per month, while in Bangladesh, where most production takes place, they earn about US$35. How can seamstresses or factory workers get out of poverty, achieve financial independence, or provide their children with an education when they are paid less for a month of hard work than customers of so-called luxury brands that use cheap labor pay for their T-shirts? T-shirts that are sewn by seamstresses in Bangladesh or Ethiopia.

In silence

In an anonymous interview with CBS from 2013, a Bangladeshi fashion factory worker says shocking words: "At least the supervisors don't beat us like they used to do when we make a mistake." The phenomenon of violence in fashion factories is common. Women are brutally punished for mistakes, pregnancy and physical indisposition – often caused by their working conditions. On our Facebook profile we have mentioned the article from „Polityka” that speaks about the fact that seamstresses making clothes for chain stores are victims of sexual violence. The weekly, quoting a BBC report, revealed the scale of brutal rapes of Uighur women in Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang. The quoted report indicated that as many as 83 companies (including, among others, Nike, H&M and Apple) – often unwittingly – use slave labor of tortured women.

Ciawi, Bogor, Jawa Zachodnia, Indonezja. Zdj. Rio Lecatompessy, Unsplash
Ciawi, Bogor, Jawa Zachodnia, Indonezja. Zdj. Rio Lecatompessy, Unsplash

It's high time to fix the production

In an interview with the Remake website, a woman says: "I think the main problem is that the factories see in us producing machines, we are not seen as women, not as mothers, not as sisters, not as daughters. They just see us as cheap labor ".

Someone's mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters – in a word: women – are usually the ones who sew the clothes that are made in the low-budget factories. And their rights are often violated. So, if we stand on the side of women's independence, shouldn't we first help those of us who cannot stand for their independence themselves?


How can we support women in the fashion industry?

  • Demand transparency from your fashion companies! Ask about factory inspections, check certifications.
  • Share posts on cheap labor on social media, talk about it among your girlfriends.
  • Reuse and swap clothes. Sell the ones you no longer wear – stop fast fashion.
  • Support a seamstress in your neighborhood. Is your second-hand dress too wide? Give it to a neighbor who has been sewing for years.
  • Buy new clothes in certified stores. Pay attention to Fairtrade – it is a sign confirming that those who made the clothes were not jeopardised and received fair pay.