Mapping the labour and slavery risks in fashion supply chains

How did your clothes get to you, and who was properly paid for them in the process?

The garment industry is notorious for worker exploitation and complicated, unclear supply chains.

Both within and without the fashion industry, forced labour, and modern slavery, is on the rise. According to the new Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report, there were 50 million people around the world living in modern slavery: 28 million in forced labour, and 22 million in forced marriages.

This is an increase of 10 million from when the report was done in 2016 – among other things, the number has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and armed conflicts.

What does the garment supply chain look like? Cosmos investigates.

The shape of the garment industry: four tiers (sort of)

“In a broad sense, when retailers talk about their supply chains, they tend to talk with tiers zero to four,” explains Dr Alice Payne, an associate professor in fashion at Queensland University of Technology.

Tier 0 is the company’s direct operations: retail, offices, and distribution centres, for instance. Each additional tier is a layer removed from them.

“Tier 1 is the people and the organizations constructing the garments for them – so assembling and manufacturing,” says Payne.

Tier 2 is fabric production, while Tier 3 is the production of the yarn that makes the fabric.

“Tier 4 is raw materials,” says Payne.

“Natural fibres like cotton and wool, that’s all the way back to the farm, or the forests that the trees come from that are then processed into viscose material. And the petrochemical industry, which is the feedstock for polyester, nylons, acrylics and so on.”

Bales of white cotton in a field
A cotton farm in Australia. Even if grown onshore, cotton may be shipped overseas for further processing. Credit: Bloomberg Creative Photos / Getty Images

In reality, there aren’t clear lines between these tiers – particularly further up the supply chain.

Even something as ubiquitous as cotton has a very complicated history.

“You’ve got the seed inputs to grow the cotton on the farm, the cotton has to be ginned – the seed and the lint separated – and then from the ginning, it’s shipped to a spinner to make it into a yarn.

“Then the yarn producer will ship it often to other countries to be manufactured into a cloth. At any point along the chain, it might be dyed,” says Payne.

“They can span the world over in terms of geographic location and can be really complex,” says Abigail Munroe, a modern slavery research and policy analyst at human rights group Walk Free, which compiled the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report with the United Nation’s International Labour Organization and the International Organisation for Migration.

The labour distribution along the supply chain

Workers aren’t distributed evenly across these tiers. Spindles and looms are both highly mechanised processes, making the middle tiers less labour-intensive. The raw materials in Tier 4 can be equally mechanised, or labour-intensive to make, depending on the fibre.

Assembling garments in Tier 1, however, demands a huge workforce.

“It’s part of the nature of cloth – it’s fluid and malleable,” says Payne.

“In the robotics space, they talk about how it might take months to teach a machine to fold a t -shirt because it’s just such a such a very difficult thing to manoeuvre and manipulate cloth.”

Read more: What you need to know about fast fashion

Each seam on your clothes needs to be guided manually through a sewing machine – which is something of a boon for poorer countries wanting to bring in more industry.

“The textile industry is often the first rung on the ladder for a country that’s industrialising,” says Payne.

“What’s an industry to bring into a country when you’ve got a large labour force? Well, often garment assembly, because it’s fairly light machinery.”

But this also comes with risks.

Who gets paid

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a T-shirt which sells for €29 (A$43) sends €0.18 (A$0.27) back to the Bangladeshi garment worker who sewed it.

Walk Free’s Beyond Compliance in the Garment Industry report, done in partnership with WikiRate, has found similar levels of low payment across the supply chain.

“In our assessment, workers would need to be earning almost 40% more to have their basic needs met,” says Munroe.

Exploitation may be worse in the more distant tiers.

“In general, across any kind of industry, workers further down the supply chains tend to face increased modern slavery risks,” says Munroe.

“That can be for a number of reasons – some of these being that they’re more likely to work in the informal economy, and they’re more likely to be invisible to policies designed to protect them.”

Tracing slavery

Governments have taken steps to make companies monitor these supply chains, but there are still gaps in the legislation.

In Australia, for instance, the 2018 Modern Slavery Act requires companies with an annual revenue over A$100 million to produce annual reports on their supply chains and modern slavery risks within those chains. The UK has similar legislation.

Walk Free’s annual Beyond Compliance reports track these disclosures and so far, they’ve looked at the hospitality, finance, and garment industries.

While most of the garment companies in this year’s analysis had statements addressing modern slavery (an improvement on the hospitality and finance industries), 33% still didn’t meet minimum requirements set out by the acts. Over a quarter of companies didn’t produce any supply chain disclosure at all, while among those that did disclose, only 35% went beyond Tier 1.

Brightly coloured threads suspended over a yarning machine
A yarning machine in Myanmar. Credit: g4gary / Getty Images

“There’s actually no penalties for companies that are within the threshold of the act, but don’t actually produce a statement,” says Munroe.

And, even if those requirements are met, there’s little motivation to improve on reports.

“We certainly see statements that are clearly being used as a box ticking activity,” says Munroe.

“For both of those acts, even the Australian act which has more involved requirements, it’s completely disclosure-based. So simply reporting that the company needs to do more in relation to supply chain mapping or risk assessment – that’s enough.”

Read more: How technology and science are helping transform fashion from unsustainable to on-demand

Stricter legislation, such as the regulations currently being proposed by the EU, might include financial penalties for failing to comply, alongside obligations to prevent and mitigate human rights abuses right through the supply chain.

The Australian government is currently reviewing its modern slavery act, with a consultation period closing in just over a month.

Future changes to the act might increase compliance – but for now, most of the places you buy clothes from aren’t making it clear where the garments have come from – or who’s being properly paid to make them.

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