By Elizabeth Segran (Fast Company)
We often talk about slavery as if it was a thing of the past–a horror from another era, perpetrated by people who have no resemblance to us. But the truth is that slave labor is still alive and well. And a new report produced by the nonprofit KnowTheChain points out that your closet is likely full of clothes made through forced labor.
Today’s slave labor doesn’t look the way it did a hundred years ago. Instead, it involves poor people in developing countries trying to find work at clothing and shoe factories and finding themselves exploited.
Take the case of one woman in India. KnowTheChain found that she had left her rural village in search of a job in Bangalore, a major city in South India. An agent found her a job at a clothing factory in exchange for a recruitment fee, although the details of how much it would be were murky. The agency then proceeded to take her entire paycheck until she had paid the fee back. Six months into the job, she still hadn’t received a single wage slip. And to make matters worse, the agent had promised her free room and board, but when she arrived, she discovered this was not the case.
Many clothes sold in the United States are made in India. It’s possible that you or I bought a piece of clothing that she made. Yet few of us have any idea about the misery, exploitation, and forced labor that go into the clothes we wear every day.
Why clothing and shoe factories use slave labor
Across the world, an estimated 24.9 million people are victims of forced labor. The lion’s share of them–16 million people–are exploited by companies for a profit, rather than by private individuals, such as in the case of sex trafficking. And according to KnowTheChain’s report, one of the largest sectors that relies on forced labor is the $3 trillion apparel and footwear industry. An estimated 60 million to 75 million people are employed in this global sector. And while most of us realize that these workers are paid very little, the reality is that some are not paid at all.
There are many reasons that the manufacture of clothes and shoes tends to be so tainted by forced labor. One is that people in wealthy, developed countries, like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France, have gotten addicted to cheap clothing. This is partly because global free trade agreements have made it easy for brands to make their products in places where labor is cheaper, then transport them across the world. This also made it possible for fast fashion to become a trend. Brands like Zara, H&M, and Century21 built their businesses around making off-the-runway looks available at rock bottom prices. As a result, KnowTheChain’s report says that “competition for low prices and quick turnarounds” has led to “globally complex and opaque supply chains.”
KnowTheChain has developed a scoring system to identify how large, global apparel and footwear companies–from Gap to Louis Vuitton to Nike–fare in terms of worker treatment. Shockingly, out of 100, the average score remained low, at 37. In other words, many of the brands that we purchase clothes and shoes from are not paying close enough attention to the treatment of workers in their factories.