Factory Exploitation and the Fast Fashion Machine

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Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash

In May, Global Labor Justice uncovered active gender-based violence in Asian factories supplying American apparel giants H&M and Gap. Results conclude that abuse against female garment workers stems directly from the way fast fashion meets its bottom line: outsourcing, contract work, and accelerated labor.

We're living in the era of fast fashion. Boasting 52 micro-seasons a year, this burgeoning sector of the fashion industry has made it more difficult to stay on-trend than ever before. Fast fashion giants H&M and Forever 21 receive new garment shipments every day. Topshop features 400 new styles every week, while Zara releases 20,000 designs annually. Sacrificing quality for quantity, these pioneers of fast fashion have quickly become the contemporary model heralds to mass consumerism — buying and selling as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

With the fast fashion machine constantly churning out new trends, it’s no wonder that consumers can’t keep up. But what does this mean for producers?

Global Labor Justice (GLJ) decided to seek out the truth. Over the past three years, the labor strategy hub partnered with four Asian-based non-governmental organizations to conduct 569 interviews at over 50 supplier factories across Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

GLJ concluded survey-based and case study research in May and published two reports detailing the exploitation and mistreatment of Asian female garment workers in H&M and Gap supplier factories — including (but not limited to) physical abuse, sexual harassment, poor work conditions, and forced overtime. These facets of everyday factory life have created and continue to cultivate a climate of fear and intimidation to maintain worker submission and achieve fast fashion’s high production demands.

How Fast Fashion Meets the Bottom Line

It is important to understand how gendered patterns of workplace maltreatment are situated in current production networks. That is, what is it about the fast fashion supply chain that makes workplace abuse against Asian female garment workers possible? GLJ reports identified several factors at play.

First, fast fashion relies on outsourcing and subcontracting.

Fast fashion is largely dependent on the Global Production Network, a term used to describe a system in which several companies across multiple countries are involved in production. Fast fashion brands like H&M and Gap, headquartered in high-income countries, play a major role in a product line’s value creation, such as market research, design, sales, marketing, and financial services.

Production is a different story. Fast fashion brands don’t touch production directly; instead, they outsource production to supplier firms in developing countries known as Tier 1 companies. These Tier 1 companies then subcontract production to manufacturing companies, or suppliers, that are not officially authorized by or affiliated with the fast fashion brands that carried out the initial outsourcing. Without authorization or affiliation, fast fashion brands carry no legal obligation to ensure decent working conditions in the bottom tiers of their production network. And because unauthorized subcontractors are unregistered, they operate without government regulation and oversight, resulting in deteriorating work facilities where worker abuse runs rampant.

These issues are exacerbated with the use of short-term contracts. This temporary work status allows suppliers to easily hire and fire workers to adjust to fluctuations in production needs and help facilitate location moves. For example, the report details how a Gap supplier factory planned to move from Bekasi, West Java to a nearby town with significantly lower minimum wage by reducing its permanent workforce from 6000 workers to 1500, with the majority of workers retaining contract statuses.

Since the threat of termination is a constant, workers are less likely to report instances of workplace abuse. In fact, the threat of employer retaliation extends beyond an employee’s workplace at the time the violation takes place. One woman in GLJ’s Gap report explained, “Once a worker makes a complaint, she won’t be able to get a job in any of the factories. She will be blacklisted.”

Second, fast fashion production targets are too demanding.

To keep up with the fast fashion machine’s voracious appetite for new trends, the Global Production Network falls victim to aggressively high production targets. Overburdened workers are often subjected to forced overtime or through breaks with little to no pay. Legally-mandated lunch breaks aren’t always a certainty; one woman’s testimony in GLJ’s H&M report recalled how her employer made lunch contingent on finishing “urgent pieces.”

Even opportunities for short breaks — such as going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water — may be withheld by overseers. One worker from an H&M supplier factory explained: “We are not allowed to go to the toilet, the targets are so high. The in-charge things like, ‘if you go to the toilet, who will do the work? Who is going to complete the target? Go to work and finish it.’ If I take even a bit too long returning from bathroom, the supervisor will take away my machine coil. I have to go and ask him for it. Then I have to tell him why it took me so much time in the bathroom.”

When they fail to meet these targets, workers may experience physical, verbal, and sexual violence as punishments.

Poor and exploitative work conditions result in gender-based violence.

GLJ’s reports followed existing legal definitions of gender-based violence as set by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2016. According to these standards, gender-based violence can be categorized as violence directed towards women because they are women, violent acts that disproportionately impact women, or both.

Women make up the vast majority of garment workers in fast fashion supplier factories. For instance, eighty to ninety-five percent gender majority in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. Further, management positions are male-dominated, while women typically work as machine operators and checkers. This results in a hierarchical power structure in which a male-majority management controls a female-majority workforce.

This means that disciplinary measures disproportionately inflict physical, mental, and sexual harm on women. And male-dominated management makes it more difficult for female workers to freely report on instances of abuse and to be taken seriously in the workplace.

Ultimately, retailers’ decision to outsource to subcontracting Tier 1 companies is directly responsible for industry-wide exploitation of female garment workers who create fast fashion products. The defining characteristic of fast fashion — the constant cranking of new trends to consume — drives production targets that can never be met, putting female garment workers at risk of severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

You can take action today.

The fight has only just begun. These harrowing reports are the sounding alarm, and we — as business leaders, shareholders, and consumers dedicated to the development of the green economy — must stand for socially-ethical supply chain practices. Here is how you can take action.

Sign Global Labor Justice's and Green America's petitions. Since publishing these two reports, Global Labour Justice has been organizing two petitions calling on H&M and Gap to take greater responsibility for their roles in the Global Production Network and end gender-based violence in their supply chains. You can take further action by signing Green America’s petition urging Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, and North Face to support safe work environments for Bangladeshi garment workers.

Read GLJ’s reports. Both the Gap report and the H&M report included the recollections of women garment workers on their personal experiences and observations of workplace mistreatment and abuse. These narratives contextualize the immediate concern posed by these workplace horrors, and they should not be ignored.

Use the National Green Pages for your sustainable, ethically-sourced clothing needs. The Green Business Network is proud to support sustainable clothing retailers in our community. Browse the clothing section of the National Green Pages, our easy-to-use directory of certified Green Business Network members.

Share this article and other educational resources on social media. Progress begins with knowledge. Using your platform to raise awareness is a key way to encourage other consumers to vote with their dollars and place pressure on retail leaders to clean up their act.

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