Risk of forced labour in clothing industry rises due to pandemic and industry response

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  • First and only report to interview large sample of workers in garment supply chain (1200 workers across 302 factories and four countries) found an increase in risk of forced labour during pandemic
  • This risk has been exacerbated by the response of retail companies, and there is little evidence most have acted in line with their social responsibilities to support their supply chain workers, despite many accessing pandemic recovery funds
  • A new comprehensive system was used during the study to look for the indicators that someone is vulnerable to forced labour
  • The recovery from the pandemic should include support for supply chain workers to mitigate the deterioration of their living and working conditions

Deteriorating living and working conditions for workers in garment supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic have increased the risk of forced labour, according to a new report from the University of Sheffield.

‘The Unequal Impacts of Covid-19 on Global Garment Supply Chains’ has found that workers in Ethiopia, Honduras, India, and Myanmar who produce many of the clothes we buy from our favourite brands in the UK and Europe were severely affected by the pandemic.

Both those that were fortunate enough to remain employed, and those that lost their jobs during the past year and found new work, reported a sharp decline in their earnings and working conditions; and both groups experienced being at increased risk of forced labour during this time.

The study is the largest to directly involve the voices of those employed to make the clothes we buy in the UK during the pandemic alongside interviews with retailers and analysis of company documentation. Previous ones have focused solely on the impact for the multinational corporations (MNCs) which own major fashion brands and retailers. It uses a comprehensive new system to look for the indicators that someone is vulnerable to forced labour.

Professor Genevieve LeBaron, from the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield, said: “There is no commonly held definition of what constitutes forced labour, and unlike the public perceptions of modern slavery, people may not be held against their will or trafficked unknowingly into their situation.

“They may end up in a job that they are unable to leave due to a number of reasons; false promises and deception to keep a person working in increasing worsening conditions, threat of penalties against the worker or their family if they left, or sometimes bonding a person into debt to the manufacturer through poor pay, leaving them struggling to cover their basic needs for housing and food.”

The study found that both groups of workers experienced indicators of forced labour, with the situation clearly deteriorating during the pandemic. It highlighted that many companies fell far short of their commitments to good practice; including sourcing sustainable goods from manufacturers with fair working conditions, pay and no use of exploitation.

The commercial actions of companies during the pandemic has brought to light how many business models within the garment industry are fundamentally at odds with these commitments, and that current government regulation does not go far enough to protect the workers.

Although the study found there were examples of some companies acting in ways that honoured their social commitments, this was mainly from companies that had direct ownership of factories, or long-standing partnerships with manufacturers that were crucial to protect. In these cases, workers were more likely to retain a job through the pandemic.

Professor LeBaron said: “It appears many companies in the garment industry accessed emergency funding during the pandemic, but also provided little to no evidence that they honoured the social responsibilities most brands we recognise have to the workers in their supply chains at the same time.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, millions of pounds worth of cancelled orders forced many manufacturers in places like Ethiopia to lay off staff, who then became vulnerable to exploitation during the desperate search to find a new job.

Those lucky enough to retain their job reported experiencing worsening working conditions and pay, exacerbating the already troubling inequalities between the countries who benefit from their labour and the workers themselves.”

Already some manufacturers are pursuing legal action against companies which cancelled orders worth millions of pounds during the pandemic, and there is increasing discussion about whether the conduct of clothing brands during the pandemic was legal.

The report calls for governments to increase the governance of supply chains and for retailers to address the damage done during the pandemic.

Professor LeBaron added: “Our report shows that retail companies tried to offset the potential damage of the pandemic by shifting losses onto their suppliers and workers who would least afford it. Most of these companies have very deep pockets and need to act immediately to address the social challenges their pandemic responses have created.

“Banning the sale of below-cost price and forced labour made goods, ensuring companies relieve the supply chain pressures that cause suppliers to use unfair labour practices, and requiring brands to report on public bail out funds received and how these have been used, would be a good start to force retailers to be more transparent about how they work; helping tackle the increasing inequality experienced by supply chain workers that satisfy our demand for high-end, and fast fashions and helping consumers make more sustainable and ethical choices when shopping.”

Jakub Sobik, Communications Director at the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (the Modern Slavery PEC), which funded the research under its call on the impact of Covid-19 on modern slavery across the world, said:

“This report highlights the unequal impact of Covid-19 across complex business supply chains and the need to do more to protect workers producing garments sold across the world from exploitation.

“Businesses should consider how their actions can rectify the situation and develop different responses for the future, while working with governments to ensure a level playing field for all businesses, incentivising those which apply good practice already.”

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On 30 June 2021, a virtual roundtable event will be held to discuss the findings in ‘The Pandemic’s Unequal Impacts on Global Garment Supply Chains’ you can sign up and join the team here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-pandemics-unequal-impacts-on-global-garment-supply-chains-tickets-158701637871

Media contact: Rebecca Ferguson, Media Relations Officer, 0114 222 3670, [email protected]

Notes to editors

‘The Pandemic’s Unequal Impacts on Global Garment Supply Chains’ is a collaboration between the University of Sheffield, The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, Worker Rights Consortium and UBC’s Global Reporting Center.

To see an embargoed copy of the report before publication, please contact the Media Relations Officer.

Headline statistics from the report:

Of the 1019 respondents within our survey who are currently still working:

  • 35 per cent reported verbal abuse
  • 34 per cent reported threats and/or intimidation
  • 22 reported unfair wage deductions or withholdings
  • 19 reported access to things such as water and the toilet as being restricted
  • 39 per cent reported being forced to work in an environment with a lack of PPE and Covid-19 precautions such as social distancing

Of those that had their contracts terminated during the pandemic:

  • Nearly 80 per cent did not receive their part or all of their severance
  • Over a third found themselves having to accept new work for lower pay, less job security and more danger
  • 68 per cent of the workers had no contract with their new job

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre

The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) was created by the investment of public funding to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of law and policies designed to prevent it. With high-quality research it commissions at its heart, the Centre brings together academics, policymakers, businesses, civil society, survivors and the public on a scale not seen before in the UK to collaborate on solving this global challenge.

The Centre is a consortium of six academic organisations led by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and is funded by the Art and Humanities Research Council on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Read more about the Modern Slavery PEC at http://www.modernslaverypec.org.

WRC

Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) is an independent labour rights monitoring organisation based in Washington DC. The WRC conducts worker-centred investigations to assess labour conditions in apparel and textile factories around the globe.

http://www.workersrights.org

Media Contact
Rebecca Ferguson
[email protected]
https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/risk-forced-labour-clothing-industry-rises-due-pandemic-and-industry-response

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