Modern slavery is a stubborn business model in fashion manufacturing and it will take more than the law to shake.

Could the diaphanous shirt on your back shield the shackles of modern slavery? It may make you hot under the collar like polyester, but yes, exploitation is rife in fashion manufacturing.  

Manufacturing, which includes the garment and footwear industry, accounted for 15 per cent of the nearly 25 million people in forced labour in 2016, according to international human rights group Walk Free. That’s 3.75 million people. And given global garment manufacturing is enormous and expanding, it’s likely the scale of modern slavery is also growing.  

Each year 100 billion items are produced by the global fashion industry, according to the Baptist World Aid Australia 2022 Ethical Fashion Report. Fashion waste is huge; one in four Australians throw away an item of clothing after a single wear. Making these threads is thirsty and polluting work — the fashion industry is the second highest user of global fresh water supplies and contributes up to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, only 15 per cent of companies surveyed for the report have a climate target covering their full supply chain.

In terms of human conditions, there are 60 million garment workers in the world and only 10 per cent of companies surveyed evidenced payment of living wages at some final stage factories. No footwear companies paid a living wage at any stage of their supply chain. The uncomfortable, itchy-woollen-jumper truth is that 40 per cent of companies don’t know who supplies their raw materials and have nothing in place to trace them.

Lifting the veil on modern slavery 

Although modern slavery is not defined in law, it is an umbrella term to refer to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception or abuse of power. It includes forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking.  

Awareness of modern slavery started with clothing and footwear; specifically, a critical spotlight on Nike for its use of sweatshop labour in the early 1990s when it moved its manufacturing from South Korea to poorer countries including Indonesia. 

In 1992, American labour rights activist Jeffrey Ballinger published Nike: The New Free-Trade Heel, an exposé in Harper’s magazine. The article coincided with the Barcelona Olympics where high-profile members of the US basketball ‘Dream Team’ were sponsored by Nike. It highlighted the plight of Sadisah, a factory worker for a Nike subcontractor in Indonesia, who earned under 14 cents per hour. Ballinger calculated that it would take Sadisah 44,492 years to earn Michael Jordan’s whopping multiyear Nike endorsement fee of $20 million.

A coordinated movement of students across the United States emerged in 1997. United Students Against Sweatshops campaigned against the sweatshop factory conditions under which college-branded apparel was manufactured. Described in The Guardian as “the biggest act of American student unrest since the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s”, the movement remains active 25 years on.

Rana disaster

In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed at least 1,132 people and injured 2,600 more.

One of the worst industrial accidents on record, the gruesome tragedy again alerted the world to the appalling conditions endured by garment workers — including for major brands.

The building housed five garment factories doing business with at least 29 global brands, including Benetton and Mango.

Rescuers climb over debris from a large collapsed building. A large crowd of people gather round a crane, which is being used to remove pieces of debris.

The collapsed Rana Plaza building on April 24, 2013. Photo: Bayazid Akter/Shutterstock.com

Despite these flashpoints and decades of awareness and advocacy, if you want to lift the veil and ensure your sartorial spending in 2022 doesn’t support sweatshops and murky supply chains, finding quality information to guide purchasing decisions is difficult. 

“In 2020, there was a lot of excitement among people who work to address modern slavery because they thought the focus on supply chains due to COVID-related disruptions would increase awareness of issues like forced labour,” ANU College of Law Professor Jolyon Ford says.  

“It increased awareness of the potential for disruption in supply chains and how we need more sovereign capability on shore. But I don’t think it necessarily raised awareness of human conditions and how people were being pushed to the edge in a lot of sectors.”  

Ford, a lawyer and scholar in responsible business, human rights and peace, is overseeing ANU students working to stitch together insights from hundreds of corporate reports by garment companies in Australia and the United Kingdom (UK) on how they are addressing the risks of modern slavery.

This is an unglamorous but essential task, transforming a patchwork of data into a picture about how companies are responding to legislation introduced in the past five to seven years.

Professor Jolyon Ford. Photo: Tom Fearon/ANU

As well as crunching corporate data, Bachelor of Laws student Yasmine Sahihi used her internship with Walk Free to look at the impacts of COVID-19 on South Asian women. These women disproportionately work in clothes manufacturing and were pushed out of the formal economy by supply chain disruptions.  

“The ability for these women to work depends on the availability of childcare, which employers stopped providing during COVID,” Sahihi explains. “The pandemic pushed women into more precarious piecework at home. Hard-won female factory labour rights — including maternity leave, equal pay and childcare — were lost. They could no longer access government benefits and formal contracts meeting minimum requirements.”  

Legislation is too loose  

Modern slavery legislation introduced in the UK in 2015 and by Australia in 2018 is the eye of the needle when it comes to addressing this complex issue. The Acts place obligations on companies with annual consolidated revenue of GB£36 million and A$100 million respectively to release yearly reports. In the UK, the only requirement of these annual statements is that they outline actions taken to tackle modern slavery in direct operations and supply chains.  

“In Britain, companies can literally comply by saying ‘we have not done anything this year’,” Ford says. “The Australian Act is a little bit more prescriptive about what needs to be reported.

“One of the issues with corporate reporting models is that compliance can be quite easy for big companies. They produce generic public relations information, stick it in an annual report and they’ve complied. It doesn’t actually mean that anything is changing inside the corporate culture or that the information produced is useful to the market or consumers.”

Making this information useful is where Ford’s students come in. Their work consolidating and analysing corporate data contributed to a significant international report produced by not-for-profits Walk Free and WikiRate. Beyond Compliance in the Garment Industry assessed the statements produced by the top 50 garment companies in Australia and the UK required to report under modern slavery Acts.  

“This problem is not going to be solved by lawyers, it’s going to be solved by economists, because modern slavery is a business model.”

Professor Jolyon Ford

The report found 33 per cent of companies assessed do not meet minimum reporting requirements, demonstrating that fashion brands are failing to take modern slavery legislation seriously.  

Luxury garment companies performed worse than non-luxury brands across several metrics, with 61 per cent disclosing that they are taking steps to address modern slavery risks — such as paying a living wage or banning sourcing from high-risk countries — compared with 85 per cent of non-luxury companies. 

A quarter of companies provided no supply chain disclosure and 64 per cent are not applying modern slavery policies to workers beyond their direct suppliers, failing to account for the fragmented nature of garment supply chains and rendering millions of workers invisible.  

Overall, investors are also lax. Seventy-six per cent of investor statements did not disclose any oversight of their investee companies. But there are exceptions, Ford says. “Some companies have particular reputational and operational risks, so take modern slavery compliance and reporting very seriously.

“Some companies have particular reputational and operational risks, so take modern slavery compliance and reporting very seriously. For example, if an apparel company is sourcing cotton from western China where there are allegations of forced labour camps, the superannuation funds that invest in the company might be very interested to know.”

A race to the top 

The report’s recommendations seem as basic as jeans and a white T-shirt, but show just how much work is still to be done. Among the suggested alterations are that garment companies improve transparency around their supply chains and provide more detailed disclosure, and that UK and Australian governments introduce financial penalties for noncompliance, strengthen legislation to go beyond mandatory reporting to due diligence, and provide avenues for redress for exploited workers.  

“The idea behind the modern slavery legislation in Australia and the UK is to incentivise a ‘race to the top’,” Ford says. “A race in which companies start to compete with each other within their own sector to produce the most detailed and helpful reports.  

“The objective is for them to work out how to all become better at preventing the development of business models that compel people to cut costs to a point where they’re using forced labour. This problem is not going to be solved by lawyers, it’s going to be solved by economists, because modern slavery is a business model.  

“It’s a multi-dimensional problem and companies are not necessarily the enemy. In fact, it’s only companies that have insight into their supply chains and the resources, motivation and incentives to do something.” 

Transparency: a paradox and powerhouse  

Ford may supervise students assessing corporate reporting on modern slavery, but he’s sceptical of “what we call transparency schemes”.  

“Reporting information doesn’t necessarily increase transparency,” he says. “In fact, there’s a transparency paradox. The more information that’s produced, the harder it might be to see what’s actually going on. I’m interested in that step between reporting and transparency, and then between transparency and accountability. Just because a company is transparent, doesn’t mean it’s accountable.”  

In Ford’s ideal world he’d like to establish a ‘transparency lab’; a powerhouse driven by students evaluating what companies say and do. “I’d love for our students to help build the race to the top by assisting business and government to improve reporting, not just by criticising their deficits. There is a hunger among students of this generation, not only for practical experience to populate their CVs, but for experience where they feel involved in something bigger than themselves.”  

As the Federal Government also reports into the Modern Slavery Act 2018, Ford would like to see it demonstrate leadership to businesses in Australia in terms of its own procurement practices and due diligence.

“If we’re building submarines in South Australia, with whichever partner, how do we know where the metal for the submarines comes from? Does it come from Bangladesh where people work 14 hours a day in horrific, dangerous conditions breaking up old ships for recycling?”  

The pointy (point of sale) end  

In Australia, institutional investors, such as superannuation funds, are driving conversation and action on modern slavery, according to Ford. “We’ve got federal regulations, market activity and investors asking more questions. But at the end of the day, across any issue of ethical consumerism, for transformative change in social impact terms, you need a critical mass of informed consumers who consistently demand certain things at the point of sale.”  

He admits there seems to be something in the zeitgeist; a greater awareness of the human and environmental conditions under which things are made and how they come to us. However, there’s not much evidence — academic or anecdotal — to confirm this ‘vibe shift’ is influencing purchasing decisions.  

One way to encourage consumers to ask questions, and have easy access to useful answers, would be a mobile app. “The Holy Grail would be the development of technology that can help us at the point of sale to make decisions based on good information we can understand,” Ford says. “A certification, such as the Fairtrade scheme, could be another solution.” 

It isn’t easy being green and ethical  

Just as it’s not easy to wear the colour of the season, Kelly green — a garish hue that normally garbs St Patrick’s Day revellers — it’s not easy to be green in your clothing purchases and confidently judge what’s ethical. “There is information out there, it just requires quite a lot of dedication to find and interpret,” Ford says.

So, what to do and where to start?

“First and foremost, in fashion it’s about buying less,” Bachelor of Laws student and Walk Free intern Isabel Gahan says.

“We’ve got to find a way to destigmatise wearing the same thing twice, because fast fashion is an enabler of modern slavery.”

ANU law students Yasmine Sahihi (left) and Isabel Gahan. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Purchasing pre-loved items and renting outfits for special occasions are steps in the right direction. Try to keep the clothes and shoes you already own out of landfill by repairing, tailoring, donating and reselling or swapping.  

“For me it comes down to consumer behaviour and education, including awareness of global events,” Gahan says. “Source information from a broader and more judicious selection of news platforms to develop a macroeconomic understanding of the world — because geopolitics informs trade. If you’re looking to buy a shirt made in Bangladesh, ask yourself what’s happening in Bangladesh at the moment?”  

We should also watch out for ‘greenwashing’, Gahan warns, where companies harness the appeal of environmental and social responsibility for marketing purposes. “Assess how truly transparent a company is before you buy by looking at its modern slavery statement and WikiRate statistics, the latter of which are reviewed by researchers.”

There is a register of modern slavery statements on the Australian Border Force website and WikiRate provides searchable company profiles.  

Fellow student Sahihi agrees consumers can “turn transparency into accountability” by looking at modern slavery statements before buying and then “voting with your dollar”. “The whole system is based on distancing ourselves from the people who make our clothes. We’re wearing slavery, but we don’t see it.”  

Look closer

Baptist World Aid Australia has a range of materials that can help you to look closer, including an annual assessment of the big fashion entities in the Australian market.

Its 2022 Ethical Fashion Guide grades almost 600 brands on their efforts to reduce worker exploitation and environmental degradation in supply chains. Use the brand finder tool to search and view company scores and an advocacy email template to speak out. The 2022 Ethical Fashion Report provides further research and background informing the guide. Other helpful materials include a Country guideFibre guide and Certifications guide, each linking to additional organisations and references.

A stitch in time saves nine, so getting across these resources will hopefully help shopping deliberations down the track. Ultimately, give yourself some seam allowance — the space and opportunity to learn and change. 

Additional images: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

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