Members can sign in here.

About the Author

Giedre Steikunaite
Student (London, United Kingdom)

Currently an editorial intern at the New Internationalist magazine ("The people, the ideas, the action in the fight for global justice"), I'm studying journalism and contemporary history in London, UK. Freelancing for various publications, back in Lithuania I was a reporter for a current affairs weekly Panorama. Development, climate change, and social issues are my main topics of interest.


The Real Fashion Victims

Published 26th March 2010 - 12 comments - 10099 views -

If we ever doubt we are in many ways connected to people in far away places, let’s have a look at the labels of clothes we are wearing. Hand wash cold, they say, Do not bleach. They also say Made in Nicaragua, Made in India, Made in Bangladesh, Made by Exploitation. Well, not this last one, otherwise we wouldn’t buy them and the ever-fattening corporations would go bust. That’s not exactly in their business plans, so they choose to omit this bit of information.

But the painful truth is still there. If you asked me some time ago, I would have said that fashion victims are those who can’t live without the latest Louis Vuitton bag (the “god forbid last season!” attitude). But when I dug a bit deeper I realized how mistaken I was. The real fashion victims are millions of workers who produce garments for clothes-hungry consumers in rich countries. They work long hours in appalling conditions, are intimidated and bullied and threatened, denied their rights and paid almost nothing. On their visit to factories in Bangladesh, the initiative War on Want found that a monthly salary for 48 weekly hours of work before overtime was on average less than £20. This means just under 7p (~8 Euro cents) an hour, says the campaign’s report Fashion Victims II. 7p an hour! This is outrageous.

Labour Behind the Label (LBL) describes the situation as “a real horror story”. This systematic exploitation, they say, is found in almost every factory, workshop and living room in which garments are manufactured. “Workers across the world face a daily grind of excessive hours, forced overtime, lack of job security, poverty wages, denial of trade union rights, poor health, exhaustion, sexual harassment and mental stress,” LBL says. Modern slavery, with a fashion touch.

Many high street brands have acknowledged the problem but failed to work hard enough to get rid of it. War on Want says the companies are simply unwilling to sacrifice their profits for the sake of ethical standards. The consumer-generated “fast fashion” means that catwalk clothes reach stores soon after Fashion Weeks, if only to be bought for kopecks and to be thrown away after being worn once or twice. This puts a great pressure on suppliers, who in turn pass it on to workers. They have to make more clothes in less time, for the same shameless pay. And who profits from this? Well the brands, of course! LBL report Let’s clean up fashion 2009 shows that workers’ wages represent only 0.5-1.5% of the item’s retail price. Around 75% go to the retailer, and almost 24% for other expenses.

So are we expected to boycott the sinner brands (which include H&M, Gap, Zara, Marks&Spencer, Primark, Nike, Adidas, Tesco… and many more)? Not until the workers in garment-producing countries ask as so, says LBL. Boycott would mean workers losing their jobs, which they can’t afford no matter how degrading and discriminating they are. And also, so many retailers have sinned that it wouldn’t make a big difference to buy from one and not from another.

Yet, what can we do? Act! Join the campaigns to put pressure on retailers and governments to take workers’ rights overseas seriously, just like they do at home. LBL and War on Want have various petitions to sign, such as the Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops campaign. And reduce our consuming habits – that helps the environment, too.


Category: Trade | Tags:


  • Johan Knols on 26th March 2010:

    Hello Giedre,

    Nice post and to the point. In my opinion you forget to mention the most important group though:the western consumers. Signing petitions is fashionable, but not if those petitions are making fashion more expensive (which they would if labour wages would go up). So instead of signing a petition and point fingers at retailers and governments we should look at our own buying behaviour.
    Good luck with your next posts!

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 26th March 2010:

    Thank you Johan!

    You are right.
    Definitely, consumerism is one of the major problems which in itself causes even more problems. As for rising prices - I think it’s the fat cats retailers who should sacrifice part of their profit in order for the workers to have a decent living. It doesn’t necessarily have to include raising prices - only instead of earning 20 million they’d earn 18. But I agree - we should look at our own buying behaviour.

  • Lara Smallman on 26th March 2010:

    Great post Giedre.
    I wrote something similar in Th!nk 2:
    I think there is a definite change in attitudes towards clothes and people are starting to think twice and check labels. There is still a long way to go though.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 26th March 2010:

    Thanks Lara! And thanks for sharing the link to your What not to wear part 1&2! A long way to go, but at least there are voices to raise the issue. Keep it up!

  • Andrius Rudeiciukas on 26th March 2010:

    Fairly typical of western white thinking. Why they are the victims? The 7 P. maybe here it seems absurd, but there may be a major asset. Somehow they work and earn. Do you want to say that it would be better if they are not working and die of hunger?

  • Jodi Bush on 27th March 2010:

    You’re right, the real fashion victims are those producing cheap clothing for the masses. Ironically those buying louis Vuitton are probably doing far less damage in this regard, as the seamstresses and designers of those fashion houses are paid comparatively well. It’s a quagmire out there trying to figure out how to living ethically.

    Of course we can’t just point accusatory fingers at “the evil West” - the market for cheap clothes exists in India, Africa and Russia just as much as here.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 27th March 2010:

    7p in Bangladesh won’t buy you a lot. If you earn on average Tk2000 a month, and 1kg of low quality rice costs Tk35, it’s clear that your wages might cover just the very basics, if they do at all. Sweatshop workers should not be made to choose between employment under horrible conditions and unemployment. There’s a third way, which is to provide them with a decent pay for their work.
    This is what LBL says about it: “It’s true that, for many workers, getting a job at a garment or sportswear factory is better than some of the alternatives - that is why so many depend on them. The fact that people are desperate isn’t an excuse to exploit them. Workers aren’t getting their fair share of the benefits they are creating for the big companies. We welcome the fact that millions of people are earning a wage. However, this alone is not enough to lift them from poverty if employers can hire and fire at will, deny union rights, pay low wages that drive people to work inhumane hours just to survive, avoid paying sick leave and avoid observing maternity rights. For many workers, these jobs bring hidden yet more devastating costs, such as poor health, exhaustion and broken families, all of which are unacceptable and avoidable. Everyone wants and is entitled to a quality job that pays “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his [or her] family an existence worthy of human dignity.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23(3)).”

  • Laura on 30th March 2010:

    the enemy is profit!

  • Ivaylo Vasilev on 30th March 2010:

    Profit is not the enemy. The enemy is the faulty business models that we have. We NEED to create only win-win businesses. That’s the only way to go. Obviously, if you have a billion-dollar fashion business, and you pay the bottom-level workers .007 USD/h, there is something hugely unethical in your business decision-making.

  • Laura on 30th March 2010:

    Yes, I agree. That’s just a good slogan and what I meant is that profit in general is understood as unethnical.

Post your comment

  • Remember my personal information

    Notify me of follow-up comments?

    --- Let's see if you are human ---

    Who are kings of the jungle: lions or zebras? Add a questionmark to your answer. (6 character(s) required)