Slavery?: The Undercover Truth of the Fashion Industry

When it comes to slavery, most people can agree that it is a heinous act and should be abolished everywhere. Slavery is regarded as a terrible act that no human being should go through. So, why does slavery still exist? I’m not talking about the type of slavery that stemmed from the Transatlantic Slave Trade that lasted for over 200 years. I’m speaking on the slavery that exists in underdeveloped countries all over the world that has been casted aside as “easy activism”. The slavery that still exists in the clothing industry.

Clothes have always been a “hot commodity” in the United States. Fashion and trends are ever changing, especially in the age of technology that we currently live in. Stores are stocked full of the latest and greatest. However, do we ever take the time to look at the tag of that cute dress we just bought? Do we even research where the clothes we like are being outsourced? Do we really know who stitched together that “fit” we want everyone to gas us for? If you’re anything like me, you truly don’t do any of those things. After the clothes are bought, it’s the typical hang in closet, wear, wash, and repeat process. No one talks about the fact that those same clothes could have been sewn by a woman making 13¢ an hour or a child laborer, barely on the cusp of turning nine, worked 16 hours just to produce that piece of clothing and hundreds like it. Slavery in the fashion industry has made headway, but it has not gotten any better due to weak protest and difficulties in pinpointing the problem areas.


Michael Hobbes points out both of these problems in his “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper” article. Hobbes highlights how many people protested the heinous treatment of the slaves in the clothing industry by not buying products from the stores that outsourced to underdeveloped countries, like China or India. However, you have to question, is this really enough? Most protests work when people “hit them where it hurts”—the wallet. But for this industry, this is just not the case. The answer isn’t as simple as buying a piece of clothing that isn’t produced in a sweatshop. This fight is not that simple. The undercover, systematic, and quite frankly cunning ways that this kind of slavery exists under requires more than the “ethical shopper.”

To combat this particular injustice, there has to be an understanding of what exactly is happening. Hobbes reports an extensive, detailed account of what is going on in these slave-ridden countries. Problems that arose in these sweatshops consisted of child labor, poor wages, filthy workspaces, strenuous and unfair hours, etc. While rules and bans were set in place to eradicate these problems, the factories found gigantic loopholes to jump through that made it appear to the inspectors that everything was up to code. As Hobbes says, “these structures aren’t designed to make factories take better care of their workers. They’re designed to make factories look like they are.” Workers are essentially trained to lie and answer questions indirectly. Children, as young as eight years old, were still being used on the lines and kept hidden when inspectors came. Paper work was plagiarized to appear like the factory was improving it’s working conditions. These factory owners and administrations fashioned, pun intended, the biggest facades to keep their businesses going. More work meant more money and the workers in the factories knew nothing of the sort. Workers barely even have basic human rights. In fact, one factory demanded their workers to pay the $200,000 loss they encountered after a strike transpired for higher wages.


Worst of all, it’s almost insurmountable for big named companies to “police” the work happening in these sweatshops. Hobbes gives the example of the 2012 Dhaka Tarzeen Fashion factory fire. The Tarzeen factory was engulfed in flames shortly after the fire alarms were going off. However, because the managers didn’t let the workers leave for safety, over a hundred people were killed and many more injured. This factory, among others, was banned by well-known companies, like Walmart and Disney, yet still had some of their clothes being sourced to those same banned factories. Some of these big named companies claimed they didn’t even know the clothes were being produced in Tarzeen because it wasn’t on a list of factories they outsourced to. The problematic nature of this situation knows no bounds. These human beings were forced to continue working through imminent danger and, as a result, lives were lost. Also, the companies that are supposed to be making sure that situations like the one at Tarzeen don’t occur seem powerless against the atrocities because of being kept in the dark about the underhanded ploys being used by companies that own the sweatshops. So, is there even any hope in eradicating the slavery that is plaguing the fashion industry?

Hobbes would like to think there is and I tend to agree with him. There have already been signs of improvement in Brazil. Hobbes denotes the hard work that Brazil has been doing for years now. The country has infiltrated, in the most groundbreaking and positive of ways, their factories to make sure that everything is fair, humane, and up to code. In Brazil, inspection is a top priority and both minor and major problems are noted and prioritized. While Brazil’s work took years of hard-hitting concentration and deep commitment, the progress is notable. Ever country should take Brazil as a role model on what factories are supposed to look like. And as for citizens? Hobbes states, “Our real leverage is with our policies, not our purchases.” We, as consumers, need to stop pretending like we are helping this cause with one purchase at a time. That’s the least effective and lazy way to get involved. Boycotting stores won’t help either. We have to dig deep and rid ourselves of this “monetary manipulation” mentality and do something bigger. Advocate for changes in policy. Get involved with legislation. Call your congressional leaders and demand them to help. The smallest, but not lazy, actions make an impact. Influential activism is the key to taking down the slavery that infects the fashion industry to this day.


Morgan Newell