For years there’s been pressure on fashion retailers in the West to investigate and remedy their labor practices overseas, owing in large part to to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka in 2013, a disaster that killed 1,134 people. A new report out of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California, Berkeley, titled “Tainted Garments” reveals that brands have been shirking these responsibilities by failing to regulate the exploitation of women and girls who work from home in India, the world’s second largest manufacturer and exporter of fashion products.
The report’s author, Siddharth Kara, an activist and expert on modern slavery, spoke to 1,452 home workers in the course of research. He found that 85 percent of these workers are employed in supply chains that manufacture garments exported to the United State and European Union; the rest labor in a mix of domestic and export production.
The introduction to the report states that, “Due to the lack of transparency and the informal nature of home-based work, which takes place right at the bottom of the fashion supply chain, the worker has virtually no avenue to seek redress for abusive or unfair conditions. The situation is worsened by the fact that there is little to no regulation or enforcement from the state regarding their work.”
Furthermore, according to the New York Times’ write-up, these hazardous occupations often fall to women who are marginalized because of their ethnicity or religion: “[M]any are women and girls from historically oppressed ethnic communities or Muslims who work from home, the majority for long hours and in hazardous conditions, earning as little as 15 cents per hour.” As the New York Times notes, this sort of labor practice has been utilized and favored by fast fashion brands for a long time, in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Times praises the Berkeley report for “some of the most comprehensive assessments of conditions facing home-based garment workers to date.”
Among the paper’s findings were that 19 percent of workers interviewed are between 10 and 18 years old. Most of the workers (76 percent) in the north of the country said they’d entered this line of work due to “some form of duress,” including family pressure, lack of alternative income, and severe financial hardship. None of the workers were members of a trade union, nor did they have written labor agreements. A full 99.25 made less than minimum wage and thus “toiled in conditions of forced labor under Indian law.”
Of course the brands and companies who employ the workers mostly claimed to be unaware of the home workers who craft their products (most are tasked with creating embellishments for garments, according to the report). Though Kara notes that the foreign brands that perpetuate these practices are “largely household names,” the report did not identify them in the hopes they would not eliminate these unjust jobs, whose wages women and families rely upon.
In its concluding section, the report offers a range of recommendations to improve labor practices and conditions including forming a home-based garment work union, increasing and enforcing minimum wages, increasing investigations and prosecutions of exploitative management, payment for overtime work, and increased consumer awareness.