Fast Fashion Industry: Supporting Developing Countries or Depriving Labor Forces?
When people talk about Shenzhen, a southern metropolitan in China, the very first thing that comes to their minds is probably the “high-speed” economic miracle under China’s Open policy. However, few people can observe the connection between the fast fashion brands including ZARA, H&M and TOPSHOP, and the manufacturing companies located at the suburban area of Shenzhen, as well as other regions in China, India, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Due to the properties of low-cost, easy-accessibility and flexibility of diversification, fast fashion seldom fails to maintain a high demand globally, especially among the middle class consumers as well as the consumers from emerging markets, which brings a huge profit to the industry. Such a huge profit raise increasing concerns about the underpaid labor forces globally. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the article "China's manufacturing employment and compensation costs: 2002-06", because of the high demand, employees in fast fashion manufacturing factories are required to work more than 80 hours per week, while the average hourly compensation of employees in fast fashion sector is below 2 dollar, more than fifty times less than that in the US (Erin, L., Judith, B. (2009). Monthly Labor Review, April 2009, pp. 30-38.). Such high-pressure low-paid working conditions not only attracted public attention to underpaid labors’ human rights, but also raised concerns towards the potential issues of fast fashion sustainability.
In the first place, some people believed that fast fashion enterprises brought many developing opportunities to the developing countries. This is indeed the truth. For example, in 2000s, China’s Open policy and its participation to WTO provided a much lower entrance cost for foreign enterprises. Such policies and China’s huge labor market did attracted many manufacture-based companies including fast fashion companies to invest in many east coast cities and Pearl River Delta in Southern China. These investments were an ideal match for Chinese government, because the drastically increase in Foreign Direct Investment stimulated the local economy and domestic consumption. “Foreign enterprises are more than welcome to invest here,” says Jun Gu, Vice Chairman of Shanghai Municipal Commission of Commerce, who is in charge of Foreign Investment Affairs and Foreign Trade Development. I’m so glad to have an interview with Jun Gu through Skype, due to the fact that the interviewee is very busy, so the interview only last a few minutes.He looks so professional by wearing a light blue shirt. He expressed his thoughts very clearly. “It is crucial for us to introduce more foreign investments to develop our local markets and update our local infrastructures. It is also a good chance to build up the commercial relationship between Shanghai and other regions to promote mutual trades.” Moreover, according to the IMF working paper “The Determinants of Economic Growth in the Philippines: A New Look”, due to the entrance of fast fashion sectors, the manufacturing sector maintains the largest contribution to Philippine’s GDP with more than 20% shares over 10 years (Tolo, J. (2009). IMF Working Paper, December 2011). With these significant contributions to developing countries’ economics growth, there is without doubt that clothing and accessories companies did supported the emerging markets.
However, more and more evidence appears to show the fast fashion companies’ taking advantages of underpaid workers and the infringement of human rights. In a UNICEF report written by Josephine Moulds in 2014, among the estimated 170million child labor around the world, more than a half of them are engaged in fast fashion industries to make textiles, clothing, garments, leather and footwear to satisfy the intensive demand of consumers. India, a developing country that benefits a lot from fast fashion industry, is particularly notorious for recruiting child labor to produce textile and garments. “When we went to investigate the garment factories in Tamil Nadu in South India, we are so astonished,” says Martje Theuws, a researcher in a non-profit organization SOMO. “Many children were performing arduous tasks such as dyeing, sewing buttons, cutting and trimming threads, folding, moving and packing garments. And in some small workshops, teenagers were forced to work in an unhygienic environment to work on intricate tasks like embroidering, sequinning and smocking.” Martje Theuws is the co-author of the SOMO report “Flawed Fabrics”, in which she revealed serious labor rights and human rights violations behind many fast fashion brands. Not only India, illegal child labor recruitment also exists in Southeast Asia and North Asia, especially Thailand, Uzbekistan and Bangladesh.
Moreover, no employee insurance and overtime-underpaid situation are widely exist in fashion industry. In Pearl River Delta area, almost all textile and garment manufacturing factories operated 24/7, and each employee are required to work more than 12 hours a day without regular weekends. Working hard in this strong profitability sector, they are, on the contrary, rewarded with a less than two dollars hourly salary that can barely meet their basic living costs. Another widely criticized issue is the workers’ safety. Producing textiles and accessories is an unsafe job, because manufacturers face high probability of getting injuries when sewing or cutting. However, when interviewing several workers in Shenzhen, we learned that very few factories provide workers with any protection contracts or insurance. Hard work, low wage, no protection, no wonder many people accuse fast fashion industry of depriving labor.
Nowadays fast fashion industry still maintain its fast-growing trend, but as the developing countries continue to grow, it is necessary for every fast fashion companies to give a solution and find a balance between profit and effectively improving the working condition as well as offering fair treatment to every manufacturing worker.