Human Rights Violations Are Increasing in Fashion’s Manufacturing Hubs

Workers remove impurities from cotton fibres by hand in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region City Turpan, China. Getty Images

Many workers in fashion’s global supply chain, the last 18 months have been a period of crisis. However, the worsening of labor rights abuses didn’t start with the pandemic. According to Verisk Maplecroft, the trend had been occurring for four years.

The report “Worldwide decline in labour rights strikes at heart of global supply chains,” compares the firm’s Q3 2017 and Q3 2021 human rights index scores of major sourcing and manufacturing hubs. It found that violations such as forced labour, modern slavery, and child labor have increased in both the Q3 2017 and Q3 2021 periods, especially in 11 key manufacturing nations. Sofia Nazalya from Verisk Maplecroft, human rights analyst and author of the report, stated that these countries have a long history of persistent degradation in labour rights.

“There’s a tendency to think — in many cases, quite correctly — that the pandemic has exacerbated a lot of labour rights issues, which it certainly has,”BoF was informed about Nazalya. “But I think the key takeaway that we got from… our data over the last five years is that… the decline of labour rights has actually taken place way [before] the start of the pandemic.”

Since 2017, the global rankings of modern slavery have fallen in Vietnam and Cambodia, which are increasingly important hubs for footwear and apparel production. More granular data shows that key sub-national regions, including the cotton-producing region of Xinjiang, China, and Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city and garment-making hub, carry even higher risks of modern slavery than their respective national averages.

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Nazalya said that modern slavery is only one of the factors that pose risks to existing supply chains. In the last five years, safety and health of workers has been in decline. India and Bangladesh were both designated as being at high risk for such violations. Covid-19, which is a garment worker protection program, has made the issue worse. In some cases, workers are expected to continue working during outbreaks and not be vaccinated.

Even in once-promising emerging market countries like Myanmar and Ethiopia, the situation is worsening. The report gave the worst possible rating to security forces and human rights violations, citing unrest, political instability, and violence in the countries.

There have been some wins for activists and workers in the industry. After fear it would come to an end, The Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a landmark legally binding agreement to improve safety standards in brands’ Bangladesh supplier factories, was reinstated in August as an International Accord with scope for expansion into other garment-producing countries. In California, new legislation was signed into law last month that will ensure legal minimum wages (in lieu of piece-rate pay, a common practice) for the 40,000-plus people working in Los Angeles’ garment industry, and extend liability to brands themselves for labour rights abuses in their outsourced suppliers.

Nazalya however points out that progress does not always reach the less-regulated corners of an industry. “The complexity of the supply chain, and the number of informal workers within [that] supply chain, makes it difficult to guarantee that across the board, [workers’] occupational health and safety is guaranteed.”

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How Likely Is It to Find Slavery in Fashion’s Supply Chains? Very.

There is a high risk of human trafficking, forced labour, and other forms modern slavery. fashionExtreme levels of manufacturing hubs have been reached.

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