Sweatshop is a general description of the workplaces which paying poor salary, unsafe or unhealthful working environment, force to a longer working period or using child labour (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). The term sweatshop is not a new phenomenon but in fact a derivation from history.
Although the fundamentals of sweat labours have changed since the 18th Century, it still has many similarities between the history and the present. In fashion industry, as the market desire and has developed into new forms, resulting in the use of sweat labours to continue.
In 1997, Nike as one of the world largest sport garment company, was caught in a scandal of using sweatshop labour for its garment production in East South Asia. Paying unreasonable salaries, forcing labourers to overwork. As a result, for many years, this has become a label that has tagged on Nike’s logo. Such a worldwide company was soon to be boycotted by its consumers and protests against the company with the names of using the “Sweatshops”.
Figure 1. (Business Insider, 2013)
Since then, the use of sweatshop in the present fashion industry has officially walked into consumer’s eyes. Nike pushed itself into the crisis it had never been in before and induced a prologue for the future revolution of the production within the fashion industry. This essay will introduce the formation of sweatshop and how it has evolved in the fashion production.
2. Sweatshop Background
The term “sweaters” in the fashion production can be traced back to the 18th Century, at the time when the market society substitute the ancient feudal system in Western. During this period, which was a vital period for the development of fashion, the growth of fashion was accelerated due to the boom in population, economics under the market society. This prosperity led to the growth in aggregate demand and consequently triggered positive effects to the fashion industry. Fashion during such period was opened to people from all social classes and craved more of many fashion varieties. However, this huge demand from the market, brought great pressure on the fashion production and division of labours. Previously, hand sewing was the main producing method in the production. To satisfy the new mass market, more labours worked for contractor or sub-contractors in the expanding putting-out system. In this production system, merchant-employers “putting-out” materials to rural producers who usually worked in their homes but sometimes laboured in workshops or in turn put out work to others (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017).
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In the 1851, Isaac Singer innovated the sewing machine. The original intention of sewing machine was to fulfil the market demand that hand sewing cannot do, which make the production job easier and closer to “mass production”. However, as Schmeichen (1984:26) suggested in some way, this encouraged the use of sweaters by contractors and sub-contractors. The machine provided the opportunity for even more complex sewing for creating fashion styles, adding even more burden to production (Rouse, 1989:252). Also, sewing machines made the jobs in fashion production less skill-required, hence attracting unskilled workers to join the production. On the other hand, Singer suggested that sewing machines can be hired by credit in order to encourage the usage for the people who cannot afford the machines. Under this condition, more workers were able to work at home for garment production due to the low entry cost (Rouse, 1989:250). It supported the putting-out system and contractors indirectly. Enormous amounts of “cheap labours” were competing for these newly formed jobs, thereby, huge disrupted the labour market. The founding of the National Anti-Sweating League in 1918 with the aim of setting the minimum wage verified that the sweaters were commonly used in fashion production, and the society started to aware sweating issue.
Sweatshop issues continued to the 20th Century, when the ready-to-wear production gradually taking place the order-to-make. During the war-period, more labours worked to fulfil the ready-to-wear production for military and other necessity productions. In Britain as instant, due to the material limitation in Europe, the government restricted fashion related supply and purchase that less garment variations were mass produced. Under this condition, there was a trend that fashion production close to the Fordism, which refers to a system of mass production and consumption characteristic (Frederick Thompson, n.d.). However, from late in 20th century, the market demand had been segmented into small groups due to the impact from media, improve in individual taste and the recovery after the war, which leading the modern fashion production to Post-Fordist, and will be explained later.
3. What makes the sweatshop a continuous issue in fashion production.
3.1 Fashion industry consideration
Nowadays, the majority of sweatshop are found in economically developing countries or impoverished areas, especially in South East Asia, where the living standard, education level is comparably low. This makes sweatshops and its low wages seemingly acceptable.
Different from other industries, fashion has its own industrial characteristics – rapid and unpredictable changing, as Wark (1991) suggested. As consumers adopt to the ever-evolving fashion industry, the present fashion has adopted seasonal trends, whereby for most apparel retailers, 80% - 100% of inventory is produced and stocked based on forecasted demand seasonally before the retailing (McCarthy, 2011:543). This capricious market demand shifts pressure and difficulty into fashion production even earlier than the actual selling.
Fashion is not standardized and homogenerous as before, the producing pattern then converted into Post-Fordist mode to meet market require. Differentiated from Fordist production, the Post-Fordist production provides flexibility including fixed timming and fixed quantity (Green, 1997:138-139), which the industry requested. Contractual or sub-contractual production are embodied in the Post-Fordism, and highly used in today’s fashion production. Many companies, especially fast-fashion brands such as Zara and Mango, outsource the production duty to low-cost providers in Asia to remain price-competitive through access to low wages and economic of scales (McCarthy, 2011:543). One contractor is unable satisfy the demand, hence only distributing the job for several specialised contractors can solve the problem. This situation is not stable as contractors are not always reliable, therefore some companies always changing contractor for next season’s collection. Nowadays, fashion brands develop and apply the Just-In-Time System into production line. By using technology to monitor the market demand of styles, product stocks and supply chain, the brand could manage to use marketing strategies and control the activities.
Contracting production caters the specialties of the industrial characteristics, in addition provides flexibility from financial, time and quantity aspects. On the other hand, this could ultimately be the fundamental reason why sweatshops exist. Since many brands do not have independent production factories, they send their design to contractors to form orders. Meanwhile, they begin product advertising campaigns and wait for orders ready for distribution and ultimately into retails channels worldwide. The main reason for this, suggested by Green (1997:147), is to cut the production cost. For instant, ZARA as a famous fast-fashion brand with the plans for total sustainable transformation in future, still contracting part of its production to low-cost manufacturers in Africa and Asia (McCarthy, 2011:543) though most of its garments are produced at its sites in Spain or other nearby countries (Patel, 2019). Pricing is considered as the biggest competition points for attracting potential customers, which means that companies will not sacrifice this factor. To cut production cost by using low-cost contractors instead of having a self-managed production line always seems more profitable.
Another advantage of outsourcing is that certain risks and responsibilities could be shifted out from the company (Green,1997:147). In 2012, a fire broke in Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh caused 112 labours buried. The factory is producing for Disney, Li&Feng and other well-known brand, can be evidenced by the labels found after the fire. Walmart and few other brands refuse any responsibility to pay for compensation after the fire with the excuse of the factory is unauthorised (Foxvog et al., 2013: 12). The contacting system creates an opportunity for brands escape from duties they should take.
3.2 Sociology and Market Consideration
One similarity between the present and the history of fashion production is that the sweating issue has always been put “vulnerable groups”, such as women, children or immigrants. Back in the 18th Ceutury, labours were cheapened by gender especially in the community. The social ideology believes that “the clothing workforce was ranked as low-skilled work”, also “ women were not considered to be breadwinners for household” , by Phizacklea (1990: 3). It is also a cause of sweating issue. In recent years, majority sweat labours are still vulnerable groups, where huge numbers of female labourers work in minimal and unacceptable spaces, with very low wages. Bangladesh is on of country that contains vast number of fashion production factories. According to the report (Foxvog et al., 2013:3), over 70% of Bangladesh’s garment workers are women which exploited by predominantly male bosses. Due to cultural difference with deep patriarchy, “women remain in the low-grade jobs and even when promoted they are often paid less than their male counterparts”. Gender segregation is still very severe in the less developed and highly religious countries, such as Bangladesh. Furthermore, in less developed countries, the lack of government constitutions and imperfect laws tend to lead, including juvenile labours in sweat production with close to none workspace protection and welfare.
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The vast aggregate demand from the market had also pushed the fashion production harder. As mentioned, pricing is the most competitive point for brands in the present fast-developing industry. It affects consumers’ decision that many consumers make comparasion between products. Many brands using pricing advantages in order to catering more potential customers from all class status, made the fashion to be affordable. On a long term, the situation got worse as fashion diffuse to the larger market faster and faster. Trough years, the “real price” of the product began to be forgotten that customers only glad to see the “real price” they believe in. Therefore, for those just-started or developing brands, they must maintain its competitiveness by using strategies and this might includes sweatshop.
4. How fashion industry and the market react to the using of sweatshop
As the general morality in society developed through times, the idea of “ethical” has been applied into the fashion industry. Experienced from many historic moments, consumers are now more sensitive in the fashion supply. A rising number of sweatshop oppositions and propagandise for human rights are occurring in society. The occurrence of some of the most famous incidents such as The Rana Plaza Collapse in 2013, alarmed parts consumer the darkness of the fashion industry. The explosion of such scandles let consumers to see the story behind the products they are consuming. The blindness consumption might be changed in the future as consumer improve the awareness of ethical.
As the consumer become more aware of ethical fashion, the industry is gradually getting closer to sustainable and ethical development. Brands start to capture the emerging market by action, and this includes important figures like the Fair-Trade and Transparency in supply chain.
Everlane for example, is a North American fashion brand which established with an ethos of ethical future. The brand supports “sustainable” in many aspects. Everlane’s products are not “big on trend” as they described that they hopes customers could wear the pieces even for decades. The design and quality are affirmed, hence to pass the concept of reasonable consumption. Also, the brand makes the pricing strategy transparent,what they call it radically transparency, which is to build a clear pricing system by publishes the ture costs of products, and the price margin the brand or selected brand are setting. Outsouring is used in the production line as other brands do. Everlane carefully selects each fair-trade factory, establishes a long-term relationship and uses compliance audit to evaluate for a fair wages, reasonable hours, and workplace. All its factory information are layed out and traceable for read or investigate (Everlane, 2019).
The brand approach is clear with real actions. The transparency in supply chain and pricing has the function of educationing on customers with fashion related knowledge such as how or where the products were made from, not to overconsumption but rational. In addition, the brand made difference on contracting by taking responsiability to both garment makers and contractors. This maverick and noval progressing mode could build positive effect on a long-term, changes the market demand moderately, installs tremendous stress on the traditional retails and ultimatelly force competitors to transform.
Apart from ethically-built brands, some of traditional fashion brands are changing too. Responding from fashion brand H&M, the company released with sustainability statement reporting its workplace dialogue and wage management system for over 655 factories and 930,000 garment workers (H&M Group, 2018). It is clear that Transparent production is now a trend in fashion production encouraging fashion brands to change from the tradition production methods. A growing number of fashion brands started publishing supply chain list (Fashion Revolution, 2019), which will become a hopeful beginning for the future development in fashion production.
In addition, some arising organisations or unions are targeting on the Fair-Trade and Anti-sweating. Governments from different countries also adopting various measures to protect workers as much as possible. Clean Clothes Campaign, known as CCC is the largest globalised alliance of labour union with no government involve (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2019). The organisation high-lightes the problems exsiting in garment industry, exposes the situations in garment factories, and calls for the public reaction. “Still Waiting” as example, is one of the article that published by CCC, exploring the garment workers’ situation after The Rana Plaza Collapse in 2013. The report reveals the real picture from the far distance to its consumers, in order to wake more consumers up. Several similar alliances which organised as consumers have emerged in recent year, all with the same thought which to empower the garment labours in terms of gender and race equality, fair salaries and contracts, and safe working areas.
On whole, there is a positive leading direction in fashion production. However, the strength does not have an avenue to eliminate sweatshop in fashion production. Generally, “being sustainable” is still a concept appears in the countries where are developed in terms of economy or fashion culture, and has not yet spread into wider distance. Ethical issues are much more under compared to Asian or African countries. For instant, China is the country with extremely strong purchasing power and massive market demand due to the high-speed economic growth and population advantage. Fashion as a youthful industry in China has not experienced the new alternation from traditional production to sustainable supply. Most consumers in the market do not have the idea of what is happening behind these garments and brands. The lack of education on fashion, the relatively weak economic condition result in this and takes time for consumers to accept.
An interview of a female garment factory worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh, shows a daily life as a labour with national minimum wage. As the worker says that working in the factory at least provides an opportunity for a considerable saving though it is little (The Daily Star, 2017). The pressure for living forced labours to accept the work. They fear of losing job so to work harder, in other wise they cannot afford the rents. In the similar production countries such as Bangladesh，India or China, massive labours are facing with the same situation. The existence of this ideology creates opportunity for sweatingin the future.
Fahion as an extremely time-sensitive and delicate industry, has its unique characteristics. Competitors are expected to fight with time and unpredictable demand for the makret. Overall, the continuation of sweatshop can be summarised by several rough reasons, including the crummy shades kept from past, industry specialty and stricted market expection. Some cultural and ideological objects influenced consumer deeply.
Speak with personal opinion, the use of sweatshop will not be totally disappeared in short time. As Green (1997: 159)mentioned, “Flexibility, competition and speed all seem to favor poor working conditions”, it reveals the current status. Huge projects need to be carried out behind this concept. Even in the future, it is difficult to judge ethical with datas. This change could take centuries, with the increasing support from consumers.
However, it is a fine start on ethical business. Though it is a challenging process to completely abolish the sweatshop issue, the industry is still reacting with it positively. Through the bad experiences in the past, fashion is now changing globally. Many fashion brands have stood-out with the idea of “fighting” for ethical and clean supply chain. Until April 2019, more than 181 brands have published the supplier lists (Fashion Revolution, 2019). With the rapid development of technology today, artificial intelligence or future technology may slove or replace the manual garment production and eradicate sweatshop at the source, closer to better future.
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