Working conditions in the global fashion industry

The $450 billion global fashion industry is one of the most important sectors of the global economy that creates jobs and clothes for people all over the world. It employs over 25 million workers in over 100 countries. The reality of this industry is that many individual producers in the developing countries work long hours under strenuous conditions for pennies on the dollar, far less than a living wage. However, there exist many unacceptable working conditions which will be illustrate in the following.

A major concern among garment workers are long working hours and forced overtime. Employees normally have to work between 10 to 12 hours, sometimes 16 to 18 hours a day. When a factory faces order deadlines, working hours get longer. Chinese workers were frequently working a seven-day week in peak seasons and sometimes they sit working non-stop for 13 to 14 hours a day. They sew until their arms feel sore and stiff. In Thailand garment employees sometimes have to work a day shift and a night shift. Overtime is usually obligatory and if workers cannot work the additional hours they face penalties, verbal abuse and dismissals.

 Another bad working condition is the handling with the workers health and safety. Eye strain, exhaustion and debilitating overuse injuries occur because of poor ergonomics (how well a job task fits a worker’s body), long hours and constant pressure to meet production workload. The illnesses are often undiagnosed and untreated. If employees take some time to get medical care or to recover from an injury or illness, they may experience cuts in wages or also be fired. In many factories, workers do not receive clean drinking water nor are they allowed to use the toilet when they need to. The reproductive health may be harmed by exposure to chemicals, heat, noise, overwork and exhaustion. In Bangladesh around 200 workers have died and many more have been injured in garment factories fires between June 2004 and June 2006. There were no emergency exits, people were trapped in the factories and most died in a mass panic. The same happened during a fire in a garment factory at the end of 2012 where 112 people were killed in Bangladesh.

In some garment factories, women who are applying for work, are asked if they are married, going out with a man and planning to have children. They reason for it is that some employers only hire unmarried women with no children and sometimes women must sign an agreement not to get pregnant as long as she works at the factory. Pregnant workers suffer verbal abuse, higher production rates, longer work hours and more difficult tasks such as standing instead sitting or working in a hotter area. Furthermore, women are prevented from taking maternity leave or pay if they return to work after the baby’s birth.

Supervisors, employers, the police, state security forces, strike breakers and others use frequently violence against workers. Especially women experience verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace. Besides, they fear assault and rape on the way home from the factory at late night.

Factories workers often do not receive regular employment contracts. So they have no means of compensation if their employers fail to respect labour laws like minimum wages, working hours, overtime payment, health benefits and other ones. Especially immigrants do not get contracts and so they are not accepted as normal in the industry. The worst-treated are the temporary workers, because they are hired with a temporary contract which is then renewed continuously to avoid legal responsibilities like health insurance. This is particularly common in Indonesia.

In many of the factories the management makes it clear that union organizing is not acceptable and workers who are joining will be fired.  This behavior is even supported by the government although trade unions are a constitutional right in many countries. In countries like China and Indonesia the government to it, because they want to prevent unions from raising labour costs.

All in all, the working conditions in the global fashion industry are really tough and the employees do not have the normal working rights set by the law. It is very important to support these people so that they can be member of trade unions and at least receive a living wage. For this reason, customers should consider if buying cheap clothes is worth that many factory employees work under strenuous conditions and facing poverty.

Written by Kristin Reinhard, Deirdre Schmidt, Florian Rützel, Marius Zentgraf


16 thoughts on “Working conditions in the global fashion industry

  1. “Women must sign an agreement not to get pregnant as long as she works at the factory. Pregnant workers suffer verbal abuse, higher production rates, longer work hours and more difficult tasks such as standing instead sitting or working in a hotter area.” – That is just so BAD! That should be protected by law, not set by the employer! Those women give the companies new workers. Without the pregnant women there would be no workers in the future. So the company needs to respect the fact, that the women need to have the maternity leave and that they need to be paid during this time. But the biggest problem is that there are so huge differences between countries. In developed countries, workers are mostly protected, even in the fashion industry. The biggest problem are still the developing countries.

  2. It is very similar with every industry in these eastern countries. It’s same in China electronics factory Foxconn – major supplier of famous Apple iPhone smartphone where laborers are forced to stand for 24 hours straight, are exposed to deadly toxins and commit suicides.
    Conditions are unhuman: Working excessive overtime without a single day off during the week, workers living together in crowded dorms. There were also almost 140 laborers injured after using deadly toxins in factory. This problem needs attention of developed countries.

  3. I was shocked to hear about a new tragedy in a Bangladesh garment factory. The building collapsed on April 24th after major refurbishment (addition of 3 storeys to the existing building) and the death toll rose beyond 500 yesterday, with more people being found in the rubble ( We often don’t realise how bad the working conditions in fashion industry can be if clothes are supposed to be produced at low cost. Women and children are exploited, workers are harassed. Worst of all, they can’t do anything about it without risking their job, health or even life. This will certainly have me think twice before buying cheap clothes from such countries.

  4. I think that the problems in the global fashion industry are caused through four different parties.

    1. The government
    The government doesn’t apply laws that protect the workers in the garment factories. Moreover, they don’t decide a minimum wage for this sector. I think the reason is that the government don’t want to lose their tax receipts of the factories through deciding laws that make the fashion companies switching to other suppliers in a different country which can produce for the same price.

    2/3. The factories and the fashion companies
    Both, the factories and the fashion companies want to make a big profit. Therefore, the fashion companies searching for the cheapest suppliers to increase their profit margin. If their current supplier is not able to supply for the same price as the competitors, they can easily switch the production to the new supplier. This increases the pressure on the factories to produce as cheap as they can. In fact that the factories don’t want to earn less money as before, they try to decrease their costs to the disadvantages of the workers and their safety.

    4. The Customers
    Most of the customers want to buy their clothes as cheap as possible. Therefore, the big fashion companies have to decrease their purchasing costs to hold their profit margin at the same level.

    In order to change something for the workers in the global fashion industry, the customers should try to buy fair trade clothes or clothes of companies which support fair manufactoring of clothes.

  5. The working conditions in the textile industry, which let mainly produce in China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand, are really inhuman and horrifying. Millions of people and even children have to suffer terrible working conditions.
    And the reasons for this is just because millions of consumers want to buy their goods as cheap as possible and companies want to maximize their profit!
    I read an article about this topic and some experts claim, that the chinese government tolerates textile companies breaking the law, to remain competitive.

    In February 2013 the chinese government decided to raise the minimum wage to improve the situation for these workers. And also India and Thailand raised their minimum wage.
    But the vicious circle continues. These countries become to expensive for the textile industry, so that the textile industry has already found new and even cheaper (!!) countries for their production: In Africa, mainly countries at the west coast of Africa like Ghana or Ivory Coast.
    In Ghana wages are just one-third comparing to wages in China!!
    And another “advantage” for the textile industry is, that the finished products are ten days faster in European stores.

    So raising minimum wages does not help to solve the problem to improve the working conditions.

    Sad but true.

  6. Yes, the biggest problem is really that the people want to have everything as low as possible. Companies like H & M and Primark therefore constantly underbid their prices each other. (However, it does not always have anything to do with the price. Companies such as Gucci, D & G and Hugo Boss produce in Japan, Bangladesh & Co. , too). Due to this fact the employees suffers in manufacturing. Those who can really change things are the customer and the fashion companies. The customer so far that he is willing to pay more for clothes and does not let rot everything in the closet after two or three times of wearing (In some cases we would get along up to 7 years with the capacity of our closets) and the company by taking responsibility and insist on decent working conditions in the productions and check this out!

  7. It is so bad that we are buying these clothes so we are witnesses of crimes on human rights! Nowadays the most important for employers are only profits and effectiveness. They perceive workers like machines or computers… They should realize that thanks their employees they can afford expensive cars, clothes, shoes, lucrative holiday and thanks them they live! Workers are just people as their employers and they have rights that have to be observed. I think that the worst problem of fashion industry is child work. It is really sad that millions of children all over the world are forced to work! We have to do stop it and do something to protect these children!

  8. As was mentioned, governments of countries in which there is such negative practices, often do not oppose such practices knowing that the good condition of the companies positively affect the economic development of the country. In this case, perhaps, the European consumers should prevail upon the authorities of the EU to introduce legislation prohibiting the importation into the European Union cloths manufactured in factories that do not meet the special requirements.

  9. Reading an essay about textile sector problems has been great for me as Turkey is counted one of 3 most textile producer country and we have similar problems about production. Most of the time young employed people try to find job in textile production as for the basic jobs experience or technical education are not necessary most of the time but textile producers only care about their responsibilities against customers but not against their own employees. Also governments do not have will to limit use of chemicals in the production process as it would be harmful for such a profitable industry which creates a lot of jobs.

  10. Nowadays for employers the main aim – to get profit as high as possible. I agree it has to be one of he main aim, but I think every employer has to remember that if he wants to earn more money using workforce- he should think about employees, because employees provides the efficiency, productivity and quality. I think it is so unfair to sign some agreements about what employee do not allow – such as pregnancy.Working hours are horrible. The main question who will pay employees for losing health in a work place working nonstop?!

  11. 2. China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It seems like great economical fact, but if we look deeper, there are a lot of problems and social insecurity for labour force. For me all of these facts which exist in fashion industries seems terribly and the responsibility of this have to take the governments, but unfortunately in local level it doesn’t work, because they are trying to get the highest number in economic statistics. So it means, that all world have to start to work in global level to protect the labour force from this situation. The developed countries have to start to talk about it and trying to find the solution.

  12. My mother also worked in the fashion industry and sewed clothes for branded companies. The work is performed so that gets gets sewn example 200 pockets per pocket is for example 2 minutes. How much pocket sewn per day, so she earns money. She worked eight hours a day and had one break.
    Most of the branded companies want a lot of products and therefore their production being moved to China, where it knows that it is cheap labor and can produce the lot. In other countries must adapt to the labor market and to offer such a sum to cover the cost of sewing and pay reasonable wages for workers.
    Today’s time is not so much about quality as quantity. And that’s bad.
    In this article can see the difference, as each country respects its people. What seems to us as inconceivable elsewhere will understand the normal thing …

  13. Across the world, accounts of excessive working hours, forced overtime, lack of job
    security, poverty wages, trade union rights denied, poor health, exhaustion, sexual
    harassment and mental stress are repeated over and over again. The reality of life in a
    garment factory, particularly in workplaces further down the supply chain, is a far cry
    from the workers’ rights stipulated by law or the ethical commitments proclaimed by the
    big brands and retailers.

  14. Due to the crisis people don’t think twice about buying cheap clothes. Customers need to be made more aware of the situations in these factories and educated about where their clothing is being made and comes from. However I don’t think it is just down to the customers it’s also the governments in the countries mentioned and the factory owners themselves. Unfortunately they don’t care about the workers but are more concerned about making money. They don’t care what rules they are breaking.

  15. Pingback: Government and Regulating Bodies Participation in Poor Textile Practices – Fabricoftheworld

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