Moving Fashion Fwd: Worker Impact

Dye stained hands of a garment worker .  Photo: Daily Mail / AFP / Getty

Dye stained hands of a garment worker. Photo: Daily Mail / AFP / Getty

Author: Allie Gardner

The fashion industry has a long history of placing workers in unhealthy and unsafe situations.  Famous tragedies from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 to the Rana Plaza Collapse in 2013 may come to mind when consumers think of the dangers faced by workers.  However, garment workers for centuries have endured countless other issues beyond catastrophic events like these. The daily routine of a job that exposes workers to harmful toxins, demands arduous hours, and pays below living wages is unhealthy and unjust.  Unfortunately, this is all too often the norm for workers in the garment industry.

Occupational hazards of the fast fashion industry go well beyond building collapses and fire hazards.  For example, that perfect pair of jeans you just love may very well have been produced by people living and working in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.  The chemical dyes used in most clothing today are extremely potent and have been known to affect ecosystems near factories to the extent that the health of locals is put at risk.  Water and air filled with chemicals become polluted with toxins to the point where rivers turn blue and skies become a constant gray.  They say in some cities, you can tell the season’s colors, just by looking at the water. The people breathing this air suffer, as do those who bathe in, drink, or fish from the water.

Those working inside the factories are often put at even greater risk than the surrounding communities.  The designers behind the ethical fashion brand Sinerji, Louise Visser and Alice Jones, have shared the story of a family in Thailand who has opted to work only around natural dyes after seeing relatives suffer from the health hazards posed by conventional chemical dyes in the fashion industry.  After years of working in a garment factory, the father’s hands were permanently dyed blue, and an uncle who had also worked in the factory passed away after contracting liver cancer. Upon autopsy, doctors found that the uncle’s “organs had become colored from absorbing the toxic dyes.”  One might reasonably assume that his cancer was caused by this exposure as well.

Smoke from dyeing factories in China.  Photograph: Qiu Bo / Greenpeace

Smoke from dyeing factories in China. Photograph: Qiu Bo / Greenpeace

Going back to that perfect pair of jeans, now imagine instead of being dyed a dark wash they were  given a “distressed” look, In most cases, this subtle stylistic change can add a whole host of additional layers of risk for garment factory workers.  A 2003 investigation of five factories in Turkey using the sandblasting technique on jeans found that “none of the five workplaces examined had sufficient local exhaust ventilation and workers were not using effective respiratory protective equipment.”  The exposure to the chemicals and dust in this situation led to severe health issues for the workers.  For instance, over a third of those studied had radiological evidence of silicosis. While this investigation was narrowly focused, its results are not unfamiliar.  A 2012 report by the Clean Clothes Campaign also found that exposure to the silica dust produced by sandblasting led to severe respiratory problems and fatal diseases such as silicosis and lung cancer in workers in Bangladesh.

The health of garment industry workers has  been shown to be affected by the industry’s notoriously low pay trend.   In early 2018, Oxfam International published a report which asserted that “on average, it takes just over four days for a CEO from the top five companies in the garment sector to earn what an ordinary Bangladeshi woman worker earns in her whole lifetime.”  Bangladesh is not unique in this regard.  Garment workers in Myanmar typically work six or seven days a week, in order to earn just $4 per day.

In fact, even in cases where garment workers are paid their country’s required minimum it is not enough, as many countries have legal minimum wages that are not equivalent to a living wages. A living wage, defined as the “minimum employment earnings necessary to meet a family’s basic needs while also maintaining self-sufficiency,” is crucial in the discussion of garment workers’ health.”  There is ample research about the effects of poverty on health, and some health providers have argued that “socioeconomic status is the most powerful predictor of disease, disorder, injury, and mortality that we have.” Chronic fatigue and stress lead to a plethora of health issues beyond the hazards posed by the fashion industry itself, and when workers are paid poverty wages, they often cannot afford to access healthcare services even when they are desperately needed.


These examples -- exposure to toxic chemicals, harsh working conditions, and low pay -- are just a small sampling of the issues that pose health risks to garment workers.  Further, there are differing and varying risks at other levels of the fashion supply chain, which spans from raw material cultivation to retail settings. As consumers, it is important that we remember the people at each of these stages and use our purchasing power to only support brands and companies that value them.

1 RiverBlue. Directed by David McIlvride and Roger Williams. http://riverbluethemovie.eco/.

2 “One Thread at a Time.” TEDxNoosa, created by Louise Visser, and Alice Jones, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YL81frHtjL0.

3 Akgun, M., et al. “An Epidemic of Silicosis among Former Denim Sandblasters.” European Respiratory Society, European Respiratory Society, 1 Nov. 2008, erj.ersjournals.com/content/32/5/1295

4 Deadly Denim: Sandblasting in the Bangladesh Garment Industry. Clean Clothes Campaign, 201

5 Reward Work, Not Wealth, 11. Oxfam International, 2018. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/static/media/files/Reward_Work_Not_Wealth_Full_Report_-_English_-_Embargo_22_January_2018.pdf.

6 Reward Work, Not Wealth, 13. Oxfam International, 2018. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/static/media/files/Reward_Work_Not_Wealth_Full_Report_-_English_-_Embargo_22_January_2018.pdf.

7 Glasmeier, Amy K. “Introduction to the Living Wage Model.” Living Wage Calculator, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2019, livingwage.mit.edu/pages/about.

8 Conway, Claire. “Poor Health: When Poverty Becomes Disease.” UC San Francisco, 6 Jan. 2016, www.ucsf.edu/news/2016/01/401251/poor-health.

Alexandra McNair