Textile workers in developing countries and the European fashion industry: Towards sustainability?

24-07-2020

As fashion becomes increasingly globalised, garment and footwear production has shifted to low-wage, mostly Asian countries. Thanks to lower manufacturing costs, clothes have become increasingly affordable for European consumers. For developing countries, fashion exports create jobs and growth, helping to bring poverty rates down. While there are benefits on both sides, the fashion industry highlights inequalities between the global North and South. With almost unlimited flexibility between countries and factories, European and North American brands and retailers can dictate conditions to developing-country manufacturers, forcing them to cut costs in order to compete. The ultimate victims are factory workers, toiling long hours in harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions, for wages that barely enable subsistence. In many countries, restrictions on trade unions make it harder for workers to assert their rights. With employers reluctant or financially unable to invest in safety, many have died in industrial accidents, such as the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which claimed over 1 000 lives. Decent work has become a priority for the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and other international organisations. The EU supports decent work, for example through its international trade agreements. European consumers and companies are also increasingly interested in sustainable fashion. After the Rana Plaza disaster, over 200 mostly European companies joined the Bangladesh Accord, which has helped to eliminate some of the worst safety hazards. While these are positive developments, a lot more still needs to be done.

As fashion becomes increasingly globalised, garment and footwear production has shifted to low-wage, mostly Asian countries. Thanks to lower manufacturing costs, clothes have become increasingly affordable for European consumers. For developing countries, fashion exports create jobs and growth, helping to bring poverty rates down. While there are benefits on both sides, the fashion industry highlights inequalities between the global North and South. With almost unlimited flexibility between countries and factories, European and North American brands and retailers can dictate conditions to developing-country manufacturers, forcing them to cut costs in order to compete. The ultimate victims are factory workers, toiling long hours in harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions, for wages that barely enable subsistence. In many countries, restrictions on trade unions make it harder for workers to assert their rights. With employers reluctant or financially unable to invest in safety, many have died in industrial accidents, such as the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which claimed over 1 000 lives. Decent work has become a priority for the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and other international organisations. The EU supports decent work, for example through its international trade agreements. European consumers and companies are also increasingly interested in sustainable fashion. After the Rana Plaza disaster, over 200 mostly European companies joined the Bangladesh Accord, which has helped to eliminate some of the worst safety hazards. While these are positive developments, a lot more still needs to be done.