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How Many Slaves Work for You?

How Many Slaves Work for You?

Fashion is the 2nd largest contributor to modern slavery on the planet, and most of us are complicit in it in some way

You already know that embracing sustainable fashion goes beyond wearing your Lyocell hoodie to Splendour this winter. But there is a ton more to understanding just how good that hoodie is is a goodie beyond just being made from a planet-friendly fabric.  

On one hand, there are environmental considerations. You have to be sure the product itself is eco-friendly and sustainable – it's fibres, dyes, zips, buttons and threads. But you also have to know the people involved in it's manufacture are treated freely  and with dignity and paid fairly. These are the social considerations - who made your clothes

Social consideration is real and it's woven into your clothes

It’s hard to imagine slavery is still a blight on the human race. Modern slavery  describes people enslaved through forced labour, forced marriage, being trafficked from one country to another, or being bonded to work to pay off a debt (the most common form of modern slavery).

According to the ILO and Minderoo Foundation, nearly 50 million people are trapped in modern slavery, of which 27.6 million were in forced labour and 22 million in forced marriage. It is believed that 71 per cent of them are women. The problem is getting worse. The 2021 figures show about 10 million more men, women, and children who have been forced to work or marry in the period since the previous estimates were released in 2017. 

The fashion industry is one of the worst for harbouring modern slavery, second only to the gadget industry: think laptops, computers and mobile phones (fish, cocoa and sugar cane round off the top five fyi)

We are often an unknowing part of modern slavery

The fashion industry is particularly susceptible to modern slavery due to the large number of low-skilled jobs involved across the supply chain - across so many different countries. Around 100 pairs of hands touch an average garment during its production. Fast fashion compounds the problem. If Australians are buying these clothes instead of locally made or ethically certified fashion, then we are a huge part of the problem as well.

Every year Australia imports $5.6billion of clothes and accessories susceptible to modern slavery production and with every item sold, we send a message to fashion retailers that we OK with their dodgy practices.

Who are these companies, exploiting workers?

You know them very very well. A recent report by Oxfam, interviewed factory owners & workers who supply clothing to Australian brands Kmart, Big W, Cotton On, Target, Myer, Best and Less, Bonds, Country Road, Forever New and Peter Alexander.* 

Every single worker interviewed was paid less than a living wage, factories were held to ransom with short term contracts, short delivery timeframes and tight deadlines. (Oxfam claimed in 2017 that an increase of just one percent to the cost of a garment would allow workers a minimum wage.)

Oxfam reports that ahead of the report's release, Cotton On, Kmart, Target and City Chic announced credible commitments towards reaching a living wage for workers in their supply chains, but so far these brands have not: Myer, Best and Less, Bonds, Country Road, Forever New and Peter Alexander.

What the Australian Government is doing about it

On 1st Jan 2019, Australia’s Modern Slavery Bill came into place. The Bill requires businesses with more than $100 million in turnover to report annually on their actions to address slavery risks in their supply chains . And the Australian government has its sights firmly set on the tech, clothing and food industries.

How the bill works - or doesn't

This bill is an excellent example of smart legislation where ‘name and shame’ tactics result in consumer sanctions. All the Bill does however allow for producer’s supply chains to the examined, and public reports prepared. There are no fines involved and no criminal actions taken.

The effectiveness of the bill relies on consumer interrogation

Whether that strategy works or not comes down to the level of interest and advocacy of the public. That’s why you should care. Companies involved in slavery can be directly punished by your consumer actions. While it’s a good start, commentators are saying we need more consequences and penalties need to be stricter. Time will reveal all, but what is already certain is that consumers are more aware of the existence of slaves and are asking questions, boycotting bad actors and expecting better - not always, but definitely more often. 

You can have a very big influence

Once you are aware that slavery is an issue in the first place, you will start to cross check more products. Slavery is invisibly bound into so many products we buy and the great majority of us are none the wiser. Take this slave counter quiz to understand how many slaves may be involved in the products you buy. It's confronting - even for someone who thinks they are highly aware, and sustainable. 

Watch for the reports to emerge from the Modern Slavery Bill (we’ll be reporting them here) and don’t buy from companies who aren’t reporting their supply chain activities.  If there is nothing to hide, then companies will submit their reports.

Slavery in Australia is also very real

The natural tendency in a first-world country like ours is to believe that slavery doesn’t happen on our shores. But alarmingly it does. According to The Global Slavery Index, there are about 15,000 people entrapped in modern slavery here in Australia, which is  roughly the number of people living in Kempsey, NSW or Sale, Victoria. That’s a lot of people who are invisible to us when we ignore their situation. 

The Global Slavery Index

The Global Slavery Index is an Australian initiative, co-founded by Grace Forrest, who sits on the board of the Minderoo Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic groups in Australia.  She is a goodwill ambassador — the youngest ever — for the United Nations Association of Australia, whose aim is to promote Australia’s human rights and peace programs, and the UN’s stand against slavery. The Global Slavery Index - which Grace co-founded and now in its fourth edition - provides the world’s leading measurement of slavery and public awareness of the issue.

What you buy matters

Now you have the facts, use your buying power to make better purchase decisions on who you choose to support or leave behind.

Image: Unsplash | Olga Frolova
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