Workers remove by hand impurities such as leaves from cotton fibres in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region city Turpan, China. Getty Images.
For many workers in fashion’s global supply chain, the last 18 months have been a period of crisis. But the worsening of labour rights abuses did not start with the pandemic, found a new report published Thursday by risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, but had been already happening over the last four years.
The report, “Worldwide decline in labour rights strikes at heart of global supply chains,” compares the firm’s Q3 2017 and Q3 2021 human rights index scores of major sourcing and manufacturing hubs. It found that violations including forced labour, modern slavery and child labour have increased between the two periods, particularly in 11 key manufacturing countries. The state of labour rights in these markets point to a years-long trend of steady degradation that predates Covid-19, said Sofia Nazalya, human rights analyst at Verisk Maplecroft and author of the report.
“There’s a tendency to think — in many cases, quite correctly — that the pandemic has exacerbated a lot of labour rights issues, which it certainly has,” Nazalya told BoF. “But I think the key takeaway that we got from… our data over the last five years is that… the decline of labour rights has actually taken place way [before] the start of the pandemic.”
Vietnam and Cambodia, increasingly pivotal hubs for apparel and footwear production, have plummeted in the global rankings for modern slavery since 2017. More granular data shows that key sub-national regions, including the cotton-producing region of Xinjiang, China, and Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city and garment-making hub, carry even higher risks of modern slavery than their respective national averages.
But modern slavery is just one factor posing risks to existing supply chains, said Nazalya. Worker health and safety, for example, has been in steep decline in the last five years, with Bangladesh and India both labelled extreme risk for violations in this area. Covid-19 has compounded the issue, the report said, with garment workers in some cases expected to continue working amid outbreaks without being prioritised for vaccination.
Even in once-promising emerging markets, such as Myanmar and Ethiopia, the situation has worsened. Because of unrest, political destabilisation and violence in the countries, the report gave both the worst possible rating for security forces and human rights violations.
Still, there have been wins for workers and activists in the industry. After fear it would come to an end, The Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a landmark legally binding agreement to improve safety standards in brands’ Bangladesh supplier factories, was reinstated in August as an International Accord with scope for expansion into other garment-producing countries. In California, new legislation was signed into law last month that will ensure legal minimum wages (in lieu of piece-rate pay, a common practice) for the 40,000-plus people working in Los Angeles’ garment industry, and extend liability to brands themselves for labour rights abuses in their outsourced suppliers.
However, as Nazalya notes, progress does not necessarily reach the informalised and under-regulated corners of the industry. “The complexity of the supply chain, and the number of informal workers within [that] supply chain, makes it difficult to guarantee that across the board, [workers’] occupational health and safety is guaranteed.”
The risk of finding forced labour, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery in major fashion manufacturing hubs has reached extreme levels.