Forced labour is a growing concern in the fashion industry

Forced labour is a growing concern in the fashion industry

While apparel and footwear firms are all too often caught up in concerns over the use of child labour, the industry can take some small comfort from three new reports just released by the US Department of Labor. But the latest findings may also mean the issue of forced labour moves to the forefront of ethical concerns.

In its analysis of the 'List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor,' the US Department of Labor records just six countries (Argentina, China, India, Jordan, Malaysia and Thailand) where violations were found in garment production and five (Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India and Indonesia) in footwear.

Compare this, for instance with gold (where 17 countries were found to use child or forced labour), sugarcane (15 countries), tobacco (15 countries), bricks (15 countries), coffee (13 countries), cattle (9 countries), rice (8 countries), and diamonds (7 countries).

Unfortunately, cotton continues to live up to its reputation for labour rights abuses, with the fact that 16 countries were found to be at fault reinforcing the lack of progress being made here, despite years of promises.

It also points to the limited impact of high profile campaigns by clothing retailers, brands and importers to eradicate from their supply chains cotton that comes from known violators such as Uzbekistan, where thousands of children are removed from schools and forced to pick cotton during the harvest season.

Of course the appearance of any nation in league tables like this is completely unacceptable. But delving deeper, the evidence suggests the use of child labour in garment factories making clothes for Western markets is nearly a thing of the past, with just China, Jordan and Malaysia singled out here.

That said, what also stands out is the incidence of what the reports call "forced labour"- where workers are threatened, bullied or physically coerced into carrying out a particular job. In garments, forced labour was found in Argentina, China, India, Jordan, Malaysia and Thailand; while China was found at fault in footwear.

Forced labour is mainly due to migrant labour, itself a symptom of factories struggling to recruit staff as local workers increasingly seek employment in other industries offering better wages and conditions.

Gangs of workers from poorer countries will pay labour brokers a hefty fee in order to secure a job overseas - but the fees often take the form of a loan which must then be repaid, with interest, from future earnings. Passports are withheld as security against the loan.

The workers are typically housed in overcrowded dormitories and survive on substandard food, with housing and food costs also deducted from their loans - forcing them to work extremely long hours. Without identity documents, owing money to brokers, tied to fixed contracts and far from home these workers are, in reality, bonded slaves.

But while forced labour is a problem that certainly doesn't generate as much publicity as child labour, it's nonetheless a growing concern in the fashion industry.

Shining a light on labour issues
The US Labor Department is at pains to point out that the tables are not intended to punish or shame the countries listed - but should instead prompt governments to face up to labour issues.

"Shining light on these problems is a first step toward motivating governments, the private sector and concerned citizens to take action to end these intolerable abuses that have no place in our modern world," explains US Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis.

The reports also highlight ways that some countries are addressing the problems. Jordan, for instance, now requires all export firms to participate in the Better Work program, a collaboration between the government, factories, international buyers and worker groups to provide transparent information about working conditions in export factories.

And member companies of India's Apparel Export Promotion Council use monitoring and certification systems such as SA8000, as well as individual buyers' internal monitoring systems, to identify and remediate child labour in apparel production.

But while they agree that drawing attention to the problem is an important step towards eradicating it, some observers fear reports like those produced by the US government often blacklist a country's entire industry, which may be comprised of thousands of factories, based on violations by just a handful of firms.

And the Labor Department itself admits that some countries with large numbers of goods on the list may not have the most serious issues of child labour or forced labour - but may instead be the ones with the most open approach to acknowledging the problems. 

Despite this, the list is an important tool that consumers and businesses can use to identify the sectors where forced and child labour abuses continue.

The real challenge now is to implement business practices that lead to higher labour standards and living and working conditions for workers around the world.