19 June 2024
Wage Theft

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Wage theft, coercion and debt bondage are rampant in the global garment industry, and the only way to address these issues is through collective action. Major fashion brands, including Barbour and PVH (the owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger), have agreed to pay over £400,000 in compensation to migrant workers in Mauritius who were forced to pay illegal recruitment fees and subjected to deception and intimidation. This case highlights the need for stronger regulations and enforcement mechanisms to protect workers in the garment industry.

Wage Theft, Coercion, and Forced Labor: Pervasive Issues in the Global Garment Industry



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In the realm of fashion, major brands like Barbour and PVH, the owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, have recently agreed to compensate migrant workers in Mauritius to the tune of £400,000. These workers, hailing from Bangladesh, India, China, and Madagascar, were subjected to illegal recruitment fees, deception, and intimidation, all indicators of forced labor.

Wage Theft, Coercion, and Forced Labor: A Global Problem

The Mauritius case is not an isolated incident. Forced labor, the most prevalent form of modern slavery, is a persistent issue in company supply chains worldwide. Even workers who are not subject to forced labor often endure unacceptable forms of exploitation.

In 2013, the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh brought the plight of garment workers to international attention. Over 1,100 people, mostly garment workers, lost their lives in the collapse of an eight-story commercial building. Since then, numerous reports have exposed labor abuses in the garment sector, including instances of forced labor.

In China, Uyghur Muslims have been forced to work in factories producing personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the end of the pandemic, evidence suggests that forced Uyghur labor continues in various industries, including garment manufacturing.

Labor Contractors and Debt-Based Systems

Third-party labor contractors play a significant role in global supply chains, recruiting and supplying local and international migrant labor. However, these contractors often engage in exploitative practices, leaving workers vulnerable to abuse.

In many cases, workers are tied to their employers or labor contractors through debt-based systems. They are paid an “advance” that locks them into employment, preventing them from negotiating better salaries or seeking alternative employment until the debt is repaid.

This debt-based system is prevalent in garment factories in India, where women workers are often trapped in a cycle of debt and exploitation. Missed targets, lost productivity, or time off are turned into debt that must be compensated through future labor.

Historical Roots of Exploitation

The exploitative practices in the garment industry have deep historical roots, dating back to colonial relations. Labor contracting and indebtedness were characteristic features of the indenture labor system that dominated textile production for centuries.

In 19th-century India, indenture workers were managed by labor contractors who paid them advances. The contemporary garment supply chain can be seen as a modern manifestation of this colonial labor plantation system.

Collective Action: The Path to Social Justice

While not all garment workers are forced laborers, even those considered “free” can experience harsh forms of exploitation. A study conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and labor activist Rakhi Sehgal revealed widespread labor abuse in India’s garment industry.

The study analyzed industrial grievances filed by garment workers in three export hubs—Gurugram, Bengaluru, and Tiruppur—and found patterns of illegal terminations, wage theft, and gender-based discrimination.

The study concluded that social justice can only be achieved through collective action. Most successful grievances were filed by unions, highlighting the importance of freedom of association and the right to form and join trade unions.

Wrapping Up

The labor abuses in the garment industry are a consequence of centuries of colonial and neo-colonial organization of production. Upholding the freedom of association and promoting collective action are essential steps toward combating all forms of labor unfreedom and ensuring social justice for garment workers worldwide..

FAQ’s

1. What is the Mauritius case about?

Major brands like Barbour and PVH have agreed to compensate migrant workers in Mauritius who were subjected to illegal recruitment fees, deception, and intimidation.

2. What is forced labor?

Forced labor is the most prevalent form of modern slavery, where workers are compelled to work through coercion, threats, or debt.

3. What is the role of labor contractors in the garment industry?

Third-party labor contractors recruit and supply local and international migrant labor, but often engage in exploitative practices, leaving workers vulnerable to abuse.

4. How are debt-based systems used in the garment industry?

Workers are paid an “advance” that locks them into employment, preventing them from negotiating better salaries or seeking alternative employment until the debt is repaid.

5. What is the significance of collective action in addressing labor abuses?

Collective action, through unions and freedom of association, has been shown to be the most effective way to address labor abuses and promote social justice in the garment industry.

Links to additional Resources:

1. https://www.cleanclothes.org 2. https://www.ilo.org 3. https://www.ethicaltrade.org

Related Wikipedia Articles

Topics: For further reading, the reader may be interested in the following Wikipedia topics: 1. Forced labor (modern slavery) 2. Garment industry (fashion) 3. Labor exploitation (global supply chains)

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