How much forced labor went into making your clothes?

Under the Label

How much forced labor went into making your clothes? Tessa Maffucci on the human costs of global fashion.
Jan Doe
Throughout New York Fashion Week, which just wrapped up on September 13, elite models showcased new designs from the most renowned clothing brands in the world. But for all the glamour on display, the reality of the industry behind it often involves the forced labor—or at its extreme, outright enslavement—of millions of people around the world.

Each year, the 20 wealthiest countries import a total of around US$150 billion worth of clothing that’s, according to the Global Slavery Index, “at risk” of having been produced by forced labor. The language indicates a visibility problem: With forced labor in fashion ranging from wage theft and more ambiguous forms of exploitation in the West to sweatshops in Asia—to the notorious slave-labor camps of China’s Uyghur region—some of it is easier to see than others. The fashion industry meanwhile employs more than 60 million globally. So just how widespread is the problem?

Tessa Maffucci is the assistant chair of the Fashion Design Department at the Pratt Institute in New York City. Forced labor, Maffucci says, runs through fashion supply chains on every continent. And it’s spread globally in recent decades, as these supply chains have expanded to multiple layers of subcontractors—making it unclear even to some brands where their clothes are being manufactured. It’s a complex question, then: Not only is fashion’s forced labor distributed in different forms all over the world, it can also be hidden from producers as well as their consumers.

This article is part of a series in partnership with the Human Rights Foundation.

Michael Bluhm: How extensive is the use of forced labor in the fashion industry?

Tessa Maffucci: Tremendously extensive, unfortunately. There’s a big challenge in unpacking that answer, though, which is that the data is very muddy. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to capture it in hard numbers.

That said, tens of millions of people all over the planet work somewhere in the fashion supply chain. The scale of the industry is immense. And there are credible estimates that before any single garment reaches the retail floor, a hundred-odd people may have been involved in making it. Clothing is such a human-intensive product to create, compared to most other products we interact with.

And forced labor is extremely pervasive in its production—very likely somewhere in the supply chain of any article of clothing you wear. It could be in producing the textiles; it could be in finishing the goods; it could be in the logistics and shipping of the goods; or it could be elsewhere. From top to bottom, there’s serious human exploitation in fashion. But it’s very hard to quantify—and the reason it’s very hard to quantify is the fractured nature of the industry.

Bluhm: You say almost any garment we wear is somehow implicated. How true would you say this is through the range of clothing types—say, from relatively cheap fast fashion to high-priced luxury brands?

Maffucci: It ranges across all market tiers. Our first thought in associating forced labor with fashion might be of low-cost, fast-fashion goods put together in sweatshops or forced-labor camps, as in China. And that association is absolutely real: When you see a garment for sale for $5, it’s hard not to wonder how it’s possible to produce the fiber, then produce a textile, then produce a garment, and then ship it around the world, and then sell it—for $5—and still make a profit.

But forced labor isn’t limited to low-price clothing. It’s all up and down the value chain. That might not be intuitive, but the reason for it is that the entire global fashion-production system is fractured in this way, not just the fast-fashion–production system. Which means that a brand will come up with a concept and a design, but then they have layers and layers of subcontracting for producing that design. Some brands don’t even know what factories produce their garments.

Forced labor is everywhere in the fashion industry on account of this absence of transparency in production. Even for brands with the best intentions, it can be very tough to know the labor conditions of people who make clothes for them.

Bluhm: How did forced labor become so pervasive in fashion?

Maffucci: Regrettably, forced labor has almost always been part of the fashion industry. In American fashion history, for example, slaves in the American South were central to the production system. In fact, some research has shown how the connection between slavery among cotton growers in the South and capital among financiers in the North helped New York emerge as a financial capital. The origins of a lot of the problems we see in the fashion industry today, though, go back to the phenomenon of globally outsourcing labor, which really took off in the 1980s and ‘90s.

It’s true that there were precedents for that phenomenon in the movement of factories that began in the early-to-mid-20th century, when it became more profitable to shift production farther away from the places where clothes were designed. In the U.S., Manhattan—at the heart of New York City—was the historical hub not just of garment design but of garment manufacturing by the end of the 19th century. But into the 20th, factories started moving to Brooklyn, then to the city’s outer boroughs, then out of New York State to Pennsylvania, then down to the American South—and then out of the country entirely. As production and design were pulled apart, there was less and less oversight of production, and it became easier and easier for labor abuses to emerge.

Francois Le Nguyen
More from Tessa Maffucci at The Signal:

It’s really everywhere. There are places where it’s worse—the Uyghur region in China, notably—and brands that choose to work in those places make that choice knowing they’re likely benefiting from terrible exploitation. … Today, China remains a major source of forced labor—particularly in Xinjiang Province, as the Chinese government calls the Uyghur region—but it’s becoming gradually less interested in supplying fashion versus other industries. So the subcontracting of labor in the fashion supply chain is spreading out more into Southeast Asia, notably into Cambodia and Bangladesh, but also into Central and South America, particularly into Guatemala, Panama, and Mexico—and even into parts of Europe, like Turkey and Portugal.”

Many instances are stark, as you might imagine them: People in need of work are put in coercive environments that they’re unable to escape from. Practices like this have spread in recent decades under globalization and offshoring, but none of them are entirely new. The structure of factory production today in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Guatemala, for instance, creates many of the same challenges that garment workers faced in the U.S. early in the 20th century: People aren’t allowed to have bathroom breaks; they’re locked in during working hours so they won’t steal time by taking any breaks at all; and they’re paid for what they produce, not by the hour. Across different regions of the world, there are documented instances of people, even children, being chained to sewing machines. And then there are entire forced-labor camps ultimately overseen by government authorities, as in China’s Uyghur region. It’s all horrifying.”

But it’s important to understand that, as production might move away from these kinds of environments, they can move to others that are also troubling. For example, a big brand might arrange to produce clothing with a certain factory, but then the brand decides it no longer wants the goods the factory has produced—so it cancels the order and doesn’t pay the factory. There’s a campaign going on right now directed at Nike for doing exactly this with a factory in Cambodia, where hundreds of workers were left penniless. And again, the full range of labor abuses extends around the world from cases like this to wage theft and other problems. So in fashion, there are many people in unambiguous kinds of forced labor, but there are also ambiguities in the relationship between forced labor and other kinds of exploited labor.”

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