The Issue

If you have read my first post about the environmental side of fast fashion, you may have noticed that I have mentioned other aspects of fast fashion, like the mistreatment of workers. Before I go into more depth, I’d like to explain what a sweatshop is.

What are Sweatshops?

Sweatshops are factories with poor working conditions and violate two or more labour laws. This may include but is not limited to unfair wages, unreasonable hours, child labour and little to no benefits for workers. 

Most fast fashion companies are unethical or break worker laws as they utilize sweatshops. While some companies strive to pay their workers equally and be more transparent about their work, many don’t reveal how many hours their employees work per week. One company, SHEIN, has not publicly disclosed information about its working conditions and supply chains to the British government. “SHEIN had also previously falsely stated on its website that its factories were certified by international labour standard bodies, according to Reuters.” – VOX. 

A Chinese news source (LatePost) has reported that SHEIN  has developed a reputation for timely payment to factories. Although this is a rarity in the country, one still wonders why SHEIN does not disclose how much they pay their employees. A possibility many have thought of is that they regularly pay their workers but for extremely low wages and extremely long hours. There are still many things about Shein’s business practices that are questionable and unknown. For example, some workers are forced to meet a minimum garment count, causing them to be constantly overworked to get paid. Unless there is full transparency, it’s rather difficult to believe these fast fashion companies are ethical from a moral point of view.

So sweatshops are a thing….why would it be problematic if we close them? 

Many of these sweatshops are established because paying for human labour is actually cheaper than paying for machines that can do the work. These sweatshops are actually helping people earn money, a majority of whom are women in developing countries. “In nine out of ten countries, working ten-hour days in the apparel industry lifts employees above (and often far above) the $2 per day threshold.” And “in half of the countries it results in earning more than three times the national average”! “ – Powell (In Defense of Sweatshops) Despite the usual pay being $2.50 per hour for a worker, that is significantly higher than $2 a DAY. We may not think that is enough or a significant difference, but that money could be put towards many things. Necessities, housing, food, investments and education. All of this can change people’s lives. Studies have also shown that women who work in sweatshops are less likely to be forced into marriages because they have become self-reliant because of the money they are earning. 

Another thing to note is that people are more willing to go to these sweatshops because they are the least bad option they have. Compared to living in the rural countryside with even less pay and little to no rights, as well as a higher possibility of workplace injuries, this is a better choice for them despite the poor working conditions and hours. Low-income individuals who HAVE TO rely on fast fashion for clothing will also be hurt by the removal of sweatshops, which means clothing prices would have to rise. The closing of all sweatshops would only hurt the poor.

Despite this information, we should all try to avoid overconsumption of fast fashion brands. It’s not that you can’t if you cannot purchase clothes from more ethical brands. However, it’s good to be mindful of what you purchase and wear. Instead of trying to blame low-income individuals who only purchase a few pieces of clothing from fast fashion brands because that’s all they can afford, we should be criticizing high-income individuals and influencers who purchase $500 hauls from fast fashion brands like SHEIN when they are clearly able to afford more sustainable options. We should also be advocating for better pay in general for workers, or at least ensure they are not overworked and have employee benefits, as many cannot afford to skip a day of work even when sick.

In my next piece, I will talk about the consumers and why they may choose to overconsume fashion.

This article was written by CONNIE DONG