The Intolerable Reality Of Modern Day Slavery
Slavery may have been abolished but it is more present than ever, in particular in the fashion industry. Intolerable stories from endless, unpaid working days to health-threatening conditions portray the individual realities that more than 25 million people worldwide are subjected to daily, all in the name of multi-national clothing brands.
Words by Sophia Schwan
With their editorial titled “Make #SlaveFree Normal”, UK based International Justice Mission (IJM) is highlighting the role and responsibility that companies have in producing the clothing that we wear and how our individual purchasing power can ultimately save lives.
Sophia: What brought about the idea of creating an editorial to highlight the issue of modern slavery?
IJM: The disturbing reality is that before many of us get to lunchtime, we could have used a product that has slavery in its supply chain – whether that’s your mobile phone, the shirt you’re wearing, the coffee you’re drinking or the lipstick in your handbag.
In fact, the Ethical Trading Initiative reports that “71% of (UK) companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some stage in their supply chains.” Statistics like this are shocking but at IJM – the world’s largest international anti-slavery organisation – we see the brutal reality of slavery and its human cost.
Ajay, a young teenager in South Asia, spent four years enslaved in a factory, making high heels. He worked with scalding-hot machinery and breathed harsh chemicals 15 hours a day, seven days a week, eating, sleeping and working in the same room. The bad news is that Ajay’s story is all too common. All over the world, millions of people are trapped and tortured, forced to produce things that we will buy. In fact, an estimated 25 million people are in forced labour slavery as you are reading this.
IJM UK is running a campaign to ‘Make #SlaveFree Normal’ in the supply chains, because we believe that no-one should suffer violent abuse to produce the everyday items we buy.
How do the designers you feature take action to stopping and preventing slavery in their production processes?
It is difficult for brands to see into every part of a supply chain. While most brands can assess their first and second tier of the supply chain, tracing beyond that presents a challenge. But there are ways for brands to be more transparent and to take greater action to prevent exploitation – and it’s vital that they do.
A common theme is a commitment to greater accountability through transparency. Some of these designers have physically visited the site of each stage in their production. Another step some have taken is using employment programmes created by NGOs to empower vulnerable women or survivors of slavery. This means that they’re providing fair employment opportunities to people who’ve experienced exploitation in the past. Others are champions of fair working conditions in the countries where they work. Many of them reinvest in the fight against slavery by donating a portion of their profit to NGOs working to stop slavery on the front lines.
By taking responsibility for their supply chains, being aware of the risks of slavery, and harnessing their brand’s influence, businesses have huge power to see change.
You state that more than 40 million people worldwide are subject to slavery. Why do the numbers seem to be growing rather than decreasing?
There are more people trapped in slavery right now than during the 300 years of the transatlantic slave trade, combined. At first glance, this can be confusing – wasn’t slavery abolished?
The truth is that slavery is a hidden crime, multiplying in the shadows. There are laws against slavery and trafficking in almost every nation across the globe, but when these laws are not enforced, millions of people are left vulnerable. Traffickers and slave owners commit unspeakable crimes when they know they can get away with it. Until global governments are equipped to protect their citizens from exploitation, slavery will continue to grow. That’s why IJM works with governments and law enforcement around the world to mend broken justice systems and hold traffickers and slave owners to account.
How does the fashion industry play a role in this?
The Global Slavery Index found that the garment industry is, globally, the second most at-risk of having slavery in its supply chains. A single garment goes through multiple stages before it hits shop shelves – from sewing and dyeing fabric to the actual weaving and spinning required to create cloth. One kind of fabric can even be composed of cotton from many different farms. This means that there are near countless opportunities for slavery and exploitation to enter the process.
How do you work together with governments to enforce laws? How much does corruption pose a challenge?
Working in partnership with government authorities is the best long-term strategy to ensure that people living in poverty are protected from slavery and violence. Our teams work with officials through “collaborative casework”, which allows us to partner on tackling individual cases of abuse, as well as giving us the opportunity to provide hands-on training and mentoring to government partners and enabling our team to discover the specific gaps in a justice system that leave those living in poverty most vulnerable to violence.
Corruption can be a problem, but we know that to bring long-term protection to vulnerable people, they have to be able to rely on their own justice system. IJM is actively engaged in building better criminal justice systems through the training work we do around the world, equipping officials to serve their communities. Over the past 20 years, we have found officials and law enforcement professionals in every community who are willing to work with us.
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