Are workers’ rights out of fashion?

We all love a bargain when we’re shopping in our favourite high street stores: it’s good for our wardrobes, it’s even better for our wallets, and it takes even less time with the increasing rise of online shopping. But at whose expense? 

When we’re buying a dirt-cheap top from Primark, or a ‘reasonably’ priced pair of jeans from GAP, do we even stop to think twice about who makes our clothes and the repercussions of so-called ‘fast fashion’? Perhaps we should start to. 

Garment industry workers are often placed in highly undesirable conditions. Working late hours, with infrequent breaks, in high temperatures – sometimes even sleeping in the same place they work – and with little pay are just some of the dirty secrets the fashion industry is hiding from consumers. 

An example of this was found recently with Zara. They are one of the world’s most successful high street fashion brands, but perhaps much of this accolade does not derive from their working conditions. 

Recent media coverage disclosed that Zara shoppers in Istanbul have come across disturbing messages on their clothing tags. The SOS-like messages read “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.” 

Indeed, Turkish workers employed by a textile company who supplied Zara, Bravo Tekstil, say their boss still owes them three months’ wages after he abruptly closed down the factory overnight in July 2016. His actions were believed to be linked with fraudulent behaviour. 

Among the companies also associated with the Bravo Textil include Mango and Next, which are also being approached for their involvement in workers’ rights abuses. 

Zara’s parent company Inditex stated: “Inditex has paid all its contractual obligations to Bravo Tekstil but the factory’s owner has disappeared fraudulently. Inditex has developed a proposal with IndustriALL Global Union (the International Federation of Unions which represents more than 50 million workers globally), together with the brands Mango and Next to establish a hardship fund for the workers affected. 

“This hardship fund would cover unpaid wages, notice indemnity, unused vacation and severance payments of workers that were employed at the time of the sudden shutdown of their factory in July 2016. At this point in time, IndustriALL with the support of Inditex is still negotiating with its affiliate union in Turkey to try to reach an agreement. We are committed to finding a swift solution for all of those impacted.” 

A similar scenario occurred three years ago in Primark, where shoppers found almost identical cries for help in their clothing labels as well, drawing attention to the fact that workers were forced to work exhausting hours in sweatshop-like environments. 

This reiterated the events which took place in Bangladesh the year before with the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory, which Primark and other retailers were known to be producing their clothing in.  

Meanwhile household name H&M have also been accused of hiring children who would work almost as hard as adults and stitch clothing into the early hours. This is the same for GAP who outsource their labour in factories in Cambodia, too. 

That being said, H&M have recently launched their “Conscious Collection” campaign “which uses organic and recycled materials wherever possible as part of [H&M’s] pledge to make all of its clothing sustainable by 2030.” This gives us some hope that fashion labels are turning a corner (as opposed to a blind eye) on some of its workers’ rights abuses. 

Moreover, TRAID, a charity dedicated to reducing the waste from the clothes that we buy and wear, also funds projects to campaign for and empower workers to know their rights, and improve their working conditions.  

But individual commitments to changing the behaviours of the fashion industry, while encouraged, only goes such a way. This is a question of basic human rights and social and economic, global injustices, and adopting an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ attitude is socially unjustifiable. 

If change is to take place, then collective action is inevitable, meaning that we must be fighting against the injustices of the fashion industry as conscious consumers. Because while trends go in and out of fashion every season, surely workers’ rights are in vogue all year around? 


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May 2022
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