Human Rights and the Fashion Industry


Human rights is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about fashion. But with recent reports of another garment factory fire in Bangladesh earlier less than 6 months since the Rana Plaza factory collapse fashion has become intrinsically linked with numerous human rights violations.

1100 people died in the Rana Plaza collapse. According to Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights these people have “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment”. Working in an industry that is prone to factory fires does not meet ‘favourable working conditions’. Nor does working 12 hours shifts at a rate of pay of just £25 per month.

In her book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World, Lucy Siegle interviewed one female garment worker who spoke about being forced to work overtime (two consecutive shifts from 7am-6pm and 7pm-6am) to meet the contract demands from the same retailers we buy our clothes from everyday. This violates Article 24 which declares “everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” Not only are these garment workers, many of whom are female, working unreasonable hours with unreasonable remuneration for their time, but they are certainly not receiving periodic holidays with pay.

Siegle also points out the fear that garment workers have in talking to anyone about their working conditions for fear of being fired or physically punished. But these fears also extend to joining unions – the very thing that Article 23 states should be free and available to everyone.

Article 4 declares, “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” However, as Siegle also reports on Bangladeshi garment workers who are transported to other countries to work only to have their passports and personal identification taken away as they are forced to work in terrible conditions for 48 hours of a time. The term ‘involuntary servitude’ is used to describe these conditions, but as Siegle states, “ ‘Involuntary servitude’ sounds a lot like slavery to me.”

Next week, as I remember the 1100 who died in a factory making clothes that I might have picked up on the rack of one of my favourite shops I’m thankful for numerous retailers who have signed the Bangladesh Accord and for campaigns such as See Through Fashion who are raising awareness and channeling public support to ensure even more retailers sign the accord. The Bangladesh Accord, though just a start, is an important first step to ensuring the human rights of garment workers around the globe. I cringe at the thought of purchasing even one more article of clothing that violates another human’s rights and hope that you will join me and use your voice to uphold the rights of garment workers in Bangladesh and around the world.

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