"It hurts us to be paid so little. I have to do this and they sell one piece of clothing for more than I get paid in a month. We cannot eat nutritious food. We don't have a good life, we live in pain for the rest of our life and die in pain.”

-- Sakamma, a 42 year old garment worker in GAP’s factory in India and mother of two
(photo: garment worker strike in Bangladesh met with police violence / libcom)

Between conscious collections, in-store recycling programs, and campaign spreads of more raised fists than you’ll see at the average protest, the fashion industry has delved into the deep end of the latest trend: sustainability and political awareness -- or at least, the appearance of such. Sexy catch phrases such as “organic cotton”, “sustainable development“, and of course the beloved “on sale now” plaster nearly every major fast-fashion label, fusing the seemingly compatible concepts of ethical production standards with the fast-fashion model of production.

We’re able to clear our conscience with conscious collections and recycle our worries into feelings of optimistic do-goodness. After all, we’re all becoming “one stitch closer” to supporting and empowering women of color in impoverished nations globally thanks to fast-fashion labels’ self-proclaimed commitment to sustainability and ethical production.

*cue kumbaya music while birds chirp softly in the background* 

Not so fast.


Despite fast-fashion prevalence and domination of the industry, this particular manufacturing model developed just recently (in the late 1990s and early 2000s) as a form of producing clothing from the runway to a mass market, quickly and inexpensively. It depends on both the continual creation of desire for consumption within the minds of consumers and the Quick Response Manufacturing model of production. Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) centralizes timeliness as the central and highest priority in the production process in order to create the mass output and scale of profits needed to remain competitive within the Western capitalist system. 

For example, H&M, the second largest retailer internationally after Inditex (which owns Zara), has been accused of incinerating 12 tonnes of new and unused clothing every year, is currently sitting on over $4.3 billion of unsold inventory, and actively produces between 550 and 600 million garments annually. They simultaneously have one of the most aggressively-marketed greenwashing campaigns of fast-fashion brands. 

This central focus on time and low production costs to produce countless new styles every week (currently the fast-fashion industry has to work to meet their 52 “micro-seasons” annually) are directly reproduced in every aspect of fast-fashion supply chains and creates the very environments that necessitate violence on the production floor.

Therefore, this seeming harmonious blend of fast-fashion and ethical production is not only deceptive marketing, but inherently and wholly incompatible. In the midst of all the smiling faces of brown Muslim women at sewing machines excited and ready to sew another pair of ripped jeans in Bangladesh, three new reports published by Global Labor Justice and Asia Floor Wage Alliance, describing severe gender-based abuse in some of the largest fast-fashion labels’ supply chains, indicates a deep and systematic incongruity between what brands are saying and what is actually happening. The abuse was documented between January and May of this year in H&M, GAP, and Walmart factories across Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka and reveals the horrifying working conditions women of color are subjected to on the job, daily


The reports, developed by an international coalition of human rights organizations, unions, and other labor organizations active on the ground including Global Labor Justice, Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), CENTRAL Cambodia, Sedane Labour Resource Center (LIPS) Indonesia, and Society for Labour and Development (SLD) India, detail sexual violence and verbal abuse against female garment workers on top of their already oppressive sweatshop working conditions.

Pulling hair, hitting breasts, firing pregnant women, threats of sexual violence and non-renewal of work contracts are just some of the forms of difficult-to-read gender-based violence documented in the report that frame the daily realities of female garment workers across South and Southeast Asia:

“...my batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling “you are not meeting your target production.” He pulled me out of the chair and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again. He kicked me.”

This is just one of the abusive experiences reported by Radhika, a widow, single mother, and garment worker in one of H&M’s major supplier factories in India. Unfortunately, such harrowing reports of gender-based violence and economic exploitation are not unique to H&M, GAP, and Walmart, nor are they the simple result of mismanagement, or careless top-down inspection. These experiences sit at the intersections of particularities of class, gender, and race: the abuse female garment workers face is no isolated accident. Garment factories exist in nations of color due to the legacies of colonialism, and are systematically dependent on exploitation and gender-based abuse to function within the fast-fashion model of production. 

Table: H&M report, Global Labor Justice / Tweets: via our Twitter town hall

Furthermore, according to the GLJ report, “Examples of physical abuse reported by workers interviewed for this study include slapping workers and throwing heavy bundles of papers and clothes at workers, especially during high stress production times. Workers reported that physical discipline practices spiked after second tier management came out of meetings with senior management driving production targets.” 

Much like Radhika’s experiences quoted above, the findings from the reports clearly indicate that these impossible time and production demands that fast-fashion places on factories are one of the major causes for factory violence. 

Photo: Walmart supply chain demands on garment workers

GLJ’s report also uncovers gendered hiring practices across fast-fashion supply chains: women workers are overwhelmingly dominant (up to 95% of the garment workforce in many of the South and South East Asian countries investigated in their reports) yet “rarely” hold any positions of power within management. This results in women becoming especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence that are enabled from such gendered power structures. One example of this is illustrated in an interview conducted with a female garment worker in H&M’s factory in Sri Lanka:

“When girls scold machine operators for touching them or grabbing them, they take revenge. Sometimes they give them machines that don’t function properly. Then they don’t come and repair it for a long time. After that, supervisors scold us for not meeting the target.”

Women are not only routinely threatened or mocked for not working fast enough to meet the demands placed on them by fast-fashion brands, but are also punished for reporting the sexual violence that is cited as justification for not meeting quotas, oftentimes being fired and blacklisted from all factory jobs. One garment worker notes that factory supervisors have even hired informants to ensure the women do not talk with anyone outside of the factory. Even more so, local press that document or report on the factory conditions are often retaliated against as well.

Furthermore, such time sensitivity and high production demands also violate garment workers’ general rights and liberties, beyond the vulnerabilities of gender-based violence: Muslim garment workers in Indonesia are unable to take prayer breaks, as they will not be able to meet production targets otherwise; in Cambodia overtime is forced and normalized (leading to “mass fainting” from exhaustion on particularly hot days); and job insecurity is widespread across all factories by imposing short term contracts with compensation far below living wages.

Photo: "Woman shot dead and several injured in protest by garment workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia" / South China Morning Post


Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, H&M, GAP, and others are putting up a seemingly noble front: H&M’s 2017 Sustainability Report claims transparent supply chains, minimum wages, and codes of conduct for all formal subcontractors. So how does this all fit together? Buzz words such as “creating jobs”, “investment in developing countries,” or, as proudly declared on H&M’s website, “Everyone should be treated with respect and the suppliers should offer their workers fair wages and good working conditions” seem to set the scene for progress. Indeed, workers should have fair wages and good working conditions. But such deceptive terms and phrases do not do much else than ease consumers’ conscience who fall for their branding tricks.

Oftentimes, such deceptive greenwashing, accelerated by H&M’s “Conscious Collections” or Zara’s “Join Life” collection, leave consumers assuming that, in the off chance that they learn about such violent factory conditions, such conditions are simply the result of either flexible local laws or independent factories, rather than intentional corporate decisions. Because, at least they’re trying, right? H&M especially prides itself on its corporate sustainability and is oftentimes one of the first brands to conduct independent investigations of their supply chains when sweatshop conditions are publicized. Shouldn’t we support the brands that are attempting to do better?

Actually, the majority of the violations reported in H&M, GAP, and Walmart factories also violate international and local labor laws--this is not simply an unfortunate "third world" situation that fast-fashion corporations are taking advantage of; rather,  factories’ pressures that lead to violence are a direct result of the production processes and demands inherent to fast-fashion. 

Moreover, fast-fashion corporations most definitely have the means and resources to do better. In the first three months of 2018, Inditex (parent company to Zara, Pull and Bear, Stradivarius, and other fast-fashion labels) witnessed a record-breaking $6.6 billion in revenue, with CEO Amancio Ortega’s personal net worth currently sitting at $73.9 billion (making him one of the top 10 richest people in the world). Supply chains are left intentionally opaque to distance themselves from responsibility, and use phrases like "should be treated with respect" or  “independent investigations”, which are as meaningless as Trump’s white house iftars.

Regardless of how a brand frames its “corporate responsibility” policies, the bottom line still stands: all fast-fashion is deeply and wholly dependent upon violent working conditions due to their production needs. Sweatshops, economic exploitation, and gender-based abuse of garment workers are not a reformable by-product of fast-fashion; they are a systemic, inevitable, and necessary component central to fast-fashion’s model of production, at almost every level of the supply chain. 

Therefore, top-down approaches to change factory conditions (such as working with or supporting brands that appear to be more sustainable or conscious) are ultimately futile and have historically failed. The only way H&M, GAP, Walmart, Zara, Forever21, and other fast-fashion brands can truly systematically end the abuse and gender-based violence that frames their supply chains is to minimize their production quotas (i.e. no longer work within production timelines that fill the demands of 52 faux seasons), allow unionization and collective bargaining, and pay living wages, among other proposals outlined in the GLJ reports.

In the specific cases of H&M, GAP, and Walmart, in light of the Global Labor Justice report they need to immediately meet with the leadership of women of Asia Floor Wage Alliance to pilot programs to end gender based violence in their supplier factories.

Rather than supporting fast-fashion brands that are putting on the best “green” front, which would be marginally noticeable and only encourage more campaigns that use sexy words that carry no value, it is absolutely integral that we support and follow the leadership of garment workers organizing globally for their human rights. Sweatshops are “in”, and as long as we don’t end fast-fashion, they’re not going anywhere.

To those who are now thinking about your consumption of fast-fashion and, much like the high schooler who, after I finished a presentation on the production chain of fast-fashion for his class are wondering if you now are “a bad person,” I leave you with this: all fashion is political, complex, and more than just a t-shirt on a clothing rack. Beyond an individual decision of what clothes you chose to adorn your body with, we need to redefine our relationship to consumption and understand the complexities of the particular political and economic contexts that create and maintain the capacity for such forms of exploitative labor. Your individual consumption is not unimportant, but for us to truly be able to transform the fashion industry and the violence that plagues it, we must support the organizations investigating and reporting factory abuse and pushing for policy change, the on-the-ground organizing and unionizing led by garment workers, and movements challenging militarization and occupation globally.

Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement in the West bringing attention to the normalization of sexual violence in Hollywood and other workplaces, we’re left asking ourselves how exclusive such movements are, and whose sexual violence we’re allowing ourselves to ignore or justify.

This piece is part of a global campaign aimed at pressuring H&M and GAP to meet with their garment workers to pilot programs to immediately end gender based violence in their supplier factories. Learn more about the campaign on Global Labor Justices' website or reading through our twitter town hall, in collaboration with various unions, human rights groups, and others working to challenge gender-based violence in the fast-fashion industry.