Human Trafficking in Fashion (Tortoise & Lady Grey)

While reminiscent of the momentary media focus on sweatshops in the 90s, Poutiainen says this time is different because of the role of social media. “The speed of information has been transformed by social media,” Poutiainen says. “If something goes wrong, the world automatically knows about it. It’s true that the maltreatment of workers is not new, but consumers are letting brands and retailers know that they need to take the issue more seriously.”

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Since the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh two years ago, there has been a greater spotlight on the issue of transparency in the garment industry. Much like the slow food movement, consumers are starting to ask questions about where and how garments are made. Even so, human trafficking is rarely discussed in this analysis. This is because, for most people, the term human trafficking conjures up images of young women forced into the commercial sex industry — not children, men and women trafficked into the garment industry. It’s true that sex trafficking is a horrendous worldwide issue, but what is less known is that forced labor is much more prevalent. In fact, the International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that of the estimated 21 million people trafficked, nearly 79% are victims of forced labor.

The garment industry as a whole, unfortunately, has been an ideal setting for human trafficking. The supply chain in the industry has long been shrouded in secrecy for the benefit of brands and retailers, at a devastating cost to workers. It has all the key elements for a perfect storm of forced labor such as un- and under-regulation, complicity and corruption on the part of companies and government officials, vulnerable marginalized populations and unscrupulous people who sweep in when given opportunity.

Under the Radar 

Tuomo Poutiainen, program manager at the ILO office in Bangladesh, says that in order to minimize the risk of exploitation and trafficking in the garment industry, brands and retailers must choose production partners that can illustrate their compliance with regulations. There may be additional economic costs, he says, for structural investments and inspection programs, but companies must strike a balance between securing basic rights for workers and competitiveness. Poutiainen says apparel companies have varied in their responses to the increased spotlight on worker rights. “No two companies are the same,” Poutiainen says. “Some apparel companies have built their brands on tracking and tracing their supply chain. They want to investigate and minimize risk. Other brands and retailers aren’t investing or auditing and aren’t really concerned.” Read more at Tortoise & Lady Grey

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