Invisibly Shackled, Perpetually Unseen: The Dirty World of the Fast-Fashion Industry

The term Modern Slavery is certainly not a foreign idea for the great majority of people. These two words have been a recurrent topic, on the news worldwide, and their reoccurrence has also led to an increased research on this problematic, as well as, to a greater number of books, published under this theme. Moreover, some dramatic incidents, such as the well-known case of Rana Plaza in 2013 – resulting in more than a thousand deaths – brought this category of crimes to the surface. However, as it usually happens with this kind of phenomena, even though the concept is not exactly unknown, most people are unaware of what it actually means. Consequently, there is an infinitude of different perceptions, with most of them, being a world away from the real situation, for example, by confusing it, with illegal emigration. From another perspective, the complexity of the term also makes the process of finding an adequate definition, an almost herculean task.


Slavery, as people usually imagine it, seems an extremely far reality, if we consider its abolition happened in the 19th century. Unfortunately, even if a certain type of slavery was actually eradicated, a new form has emerged and, it represents an everyday reality for millions of people around the world – since no single country, can affirm to be completely free of this epidemic. This global phenomena, although still lacking a definition from any international instrument, has been described by the International Labor Organization – for the purposes of the production of the report “2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery”. On this report from the ILO, the term Modern Slavery is defined as covering a ”(…) set of specific legal concepts including forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, other slavery and slavery-like practices, and human trafficking.”1 Modern Slavery can present many facets and, that is why it becomes so extremely difficult to detect. It is a hidden crime in its nature, meaning it can actually be happening in our backyard, while we carry with our daily lives, remaining completely clueless.


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The concepts of modern slavery and human trafficking are most often, two sides of the same coin. A variety of different factors can contribute to these problematics, such as enormous income inequalities, poverty, prejudice and gender discrimination, corruption, or the lack of rule of law. Refugees are in a particularly vulnerable position, with conflict regions being major sources of victims for the traffickers. Their fragile situation, makes them a soft target, being easily coerced by false promises, that carry the perspective of a better life. Moreover, by living under so much insecurity and fear, almost any kind of change seems better than staying in those regions, and ultimately, a sense of hope can be effortlessly created. The absence of a solid rule of a law – or even of any sort of governance – is particularly problematic because it leaves the victims completely unprotected and, at the mercy of the slaveholders, who can basically rely on impunity. This current state of affairs means that around the world, people are being abducted, coerced or deceived by traffickers, going most of the times voluntarily, and without any knowledge, about the fact that they are consequently condemned to a life of exploitation and servitude.


Modern slavery can take a multitude of different forms, such as: traditional slavery, debt bondage, serfdom, forced labor, sale of children and worst forms of child labor, commercial sexual exploitation of children, sexual slavery, forced or early marriage, the sale of wives and widow inheritance and finally, trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation and forced labor.2 This process involves transforming people into property, stripping them of their humanity and reducing them to a condition of compelled service, where they end up losing any notion of freedom. Working extensively long hours, under terrible medieval conditions, for little or no payment at all, people can easily become like puppets, blindly submissive and completely subdued to their owner’s demands and wishes, becoming alien to the possibility of a different life. Slaveholders usually stand from a position of undisputed superiority – where feelings like compassion do not exist

– using their cruelty to create a constant atmosphere of terror and suspicion, while also playing on their sense of obligation, and using it as a trap, so that ultimately, they can make sure they will not dare to seek for help or to try to escape by any chance.


As the slaves, also the traffickers come from all parts of the world. Sometimes, as part of large networks of international organized crime, at others, as small groups, usually working only inside a specific community or region. As aforementioned, slaveholders use a variety of different methods to make sure their victims remain in bondage. Those methods can entail, intimidation and violence, threatening family members, confiscating their documents, keeping them under the effect of alcohol or drugs, and restricting their freedom of movement by keeping them in isolation. In a great number of cases, the victims are placed in countries where they do not speak the language, and that also works as an advantage for their bosses.3


The phenomena of modern slavery is a global phenomenon, as mentioned before, meaning that no country can strictly affirm to have been able to eradicate it. Usually, when it involves crossing borders, it generally occurs from poor countries to wealthier ones. The top three countries, more affected by modern slavery are India, China and Pakistan.4 Being a worldwide concern, and as it generally happens, legislation was enacted with the hope of using international law, as the ultimate solution. Major transformations have occurred in the materialization of the concept of modern slavery, that we know today. The methods are getting more sophisticated and consequently, the process of gathering information is getting more complex, with this category of crimes becoming even more surreptitious. In 2000, the United Nations adopted the

“Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols of Thereto”.5 This was certainly an important step to fight the impunity that generally involves these criteria of crimes, to improve international cooperation and to reinforce the urgency of addressing this epidemic. However, it is curious that within more than eighty pages, the word ‘slavery’ only is mentioned twice in this Convention.


The building collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, created at the time, an actual wave of rage, turmoil and an increased awareness, of the true cost, of the consumer societies we are now living in. Fast fashion industries are certainly major players in this inhumane way of doing businesses, acting with complete disregard by the ones at the lower level of the supply chains, but this is a reality that unfortunately, spreads to a variety of different industries and business areas of activity. Decades of consumerism preaching – essentially through aggressive advertisement with features of propaganda – created an artificial assumption that our success must be measured by the number of things we are able to buy. In other words, advertisement established the preposterous notion, that consumerism is the answer for all the possible problems that people may have. This quantity over quality mindset, makes people privilege the purchase of cheap items, so that they can buy more and most importantly, this brainwashes people into neglecting how those things are in fact being produced and under what conditions, since the act of buying becomes the only priority. As the author Kevin Bales, vividly explained, “Whether we are grilling shrimp for our friends or buying T-shirts for our children we generally think of these things as beginning where we first encountered them, at the shop, at the mall, in the grocery store.”6 This tragic incident of Rana Plaza, with such terrible contours, opened a window of opportunity for countries to come together and work on an effective change, however, five years after the collapse, not much has been done, “Despite the final compensation being paid by an unknown source, even today, nearly three years into the process of the Bangladesh Accord, H&M has not fulfilled its obligations to address safety hazards in its Bangladeshi factories.”7


Societies today, are trapped in an atmosphere, built upon an unquenchable demand, as a result of the unbridled consumerism, which is creating stupendous profits at the human cost. Some countries, with the United States of America being the most evident example, proudly affirm to be spearheading the combat on modern slavery. In truth, the USA has been leading important initiatives to fight this epidemic, inter alia, most recently through the “End Modern Slavery Initiative Act”, designed to increase the funding for projects and programs to end modern slavery.8 Albeit their positive efforts, on effectively tackling this problematic, it is also relevant to remember, that they consume – on a massive scale – products that are being manufactured by slave labour, and consequently, we could assume that their endeavours, also result from a guilty conscience.


If we take the example, of the fashion industry – one of the most pollutant and ruthless industries in the world – the United States has more than 97% of its production being outsourced to low-cost economies – in developing countries – where most of these atrocities are taking place, for the sole sake of cheaper goods.9 These factories, situated in some of the poorest and least developed regions in the world, need desperately to make money, and the big companies play with their vulnerability and use it as their advantage, by threatening to find other factories, if the ones they contracted to not produce it as cheap as they want. The owners of these factories, end up being trapped by these demands, and they have no solution but to accept it, in order to survive and to be able to feed their families. What those big companies tend to ignore, when using these rapacious schemes, is that these manufacturers will have to most certainly overlook safety measures and working conditions, to fulfil their requirements. 10 It is important to understand, that modern slavery is an economic crime, whose main objective is to achieve profit-maximization and not exactly, an engine for cruelty and suffering. The misery and the sorrow, only come as a consequence of trying to obtain higher profits. However, it is also crucial to comprehend that the current deflation of prices, does not result from a decrease on the production costs but, to an actual decrease on the human value, as the answer to a deadly and never-ending competition for the lower prices.


In the last decades, the fast-fashion industry has become a giant animal with an insatiable appetite. If in the past, we had only two different seasons a year, this industry has been able to shift the traditional pattern and to create more than 50, imposing on consumers, the absurd feeling of necessity, to buy more and to own more. Through the usage of modern slavery, the fast-fashion industry found the answer for having greater production at cheaper prices, and, for a society, that is mostly value-oriented, this revolution in the fashion world, looked impressively appealing. This recipe for success, has made some of the major fast-fashion businesses, accumulate millions of dollars and, if nothing is rapidly put in place to stop it, their greed and ambition will continue to blind them, into contributing to the increasing number of modern slavery victims globally.


One of the most problematic realities, when discussing the outcomes of the fast-fashion industry and most specifically, the sweatshops where most of their products are being produced, is the discourse used by some of these big businesses, to mislead the public opinion and to avoid being held responsible. Firstly, they immediately move away from the concept of modern slavery from the frame and affirm how absurd it is to lump these two things together. And secondly, they rely on most of their arguments, by shamelessly declaring that they are actually helping those victims, since they are contributing to the economic growth of those areas, as well as stimulating job creation, and ultimately, that those people could be working in some areas of activity much more dangerous than sweatshops. It is undoubtedly true, that these people need jobs, however, providing these jobs is not enough, if that implicates the total absence of,

safe working conditions, a fair wage, or even the disregard for peoples health. The sad truth is that the usage of these sort of rhetoric has actually enabled these businesses to continue prospering, while the rest of the world, perpetually fails on their victims, and with the perspective of having a different narrative, being still a distant reality.


Effectively breaking with the modern slavery cycle, implies much more than achieving a concerted effort, or a general agreement on its daunting features, it involves the transformation of a whole societal mindset, which ultimately should mean that “We’ll have to think about the origins of the things we buy and maybe pay a little more for some items.”11 The change implies paying more attention to the supply chains behind the products we buy on a daily basis. It implicates, understanding that in most situations, when prices look insanely cheap, we should avoid the urge to purchase them immediately, and we should ponder on that decision since it is almost certain that people were exploited for that result. When we reflect on the recent numbers, showing that more than forty million people around the world are presently victims of modern-day slave trade, we should never neglect how complicit we actually are in our everyday decisions.


The business sphere has a crucial role to play in this roadmap, especially if they decide to use their power to eradicate modern slavery, as wisely, as they have been using it to actually facilitate its spread. Part of the business community is stained with guilt for their contribution to this scourge, and that is also why they have the responsibility to take appropriate action to prevent these situations to happen. The business world has the power to actually make a change at a wide scale. On a first moment, hey should start by hiring high qualified human resources to effectively monitor their supply chains, and to make sure that their products are not being slave-produced in the countries where their factories are located. And secondly, they should embrace this fight as a genuine and constant commitment, taking it into consideration.

in every step, decision, policy and initiative. The rising power of certain undertakings – with some of them generating more money than some countries in the world together – reinforces their potential to put in place concrete solutions for this epidemic and to achieve significant change.

The hidden nature of this crime, results in having most victims unseen, even when those acts are happening at the public sight, and this represents one of the most challenging barriers when combating modern slavery. The number of slaveholders and traffickers, that ends up being prosecuted is extremely low, and this lack of law enforcement perpetuates a feeling of impunity, that prevents most victims to report, while it gives the perpetrators the freedom to continue with their practices. With most victims being deprived of their documents, that also installs a constant fear of being deported if they decide to come forward, or even to be sent to prison. Perpetrators also take advantage, of most of their victims being unaware of their rights and, how that makes them even more reluctant to denounce them since they believe that would not make a change. Additionally, a considerable percentage of the victims, are illiterate or have a very low level of education which, also contributes as a benefit for the perpetrators, who can also play with their sense of obligation and subservience, keeping them at a fearful state, where it would be very unlikely for them to consider disclose to anybody.12


The widespread of the problematic of contemporary slavery will imply more than the isolated commitment of the business world, even if it is undoubtedly, one of the key elements for this transformation to happen. To combat this epidemic, it will require the combination of several elements, creating solid and powerful connections between them and ultimately, contributing to the construction of a massive fighting force, acknowledging that building synergies is a fundamental factor for the possible success of this concerted effort. Governments, civil society and the business community should create a coalition and work together in the drawing of strategies, where each part can use its particular features as an added value, since allowing the opposite – with each element working separately – can be detrimental to the general aim. It is essential to spot signs, raise awareness, create hotlines, share reliable information on this topic, design rehabilitation programs and most importantly, to come with creative solutions to a problem whose contours are constantly changing and becoming more sophisticated and, consequently, harder to uncover.


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The excuses, traditionally used to ignore this plague, are meaningful in today’s world. We are the generation that has full access to information and who is perfectly aware of this reality. If knowledge is power, the current generation is the one with the necessary tools to take this fight to the next level, “We’re now part of the generation that came to know better. It’s a burden on us (…) but it’s also an opportunity.”13 Feeling compassionate, when hearing about this unseen world on the news, when some major incident happens or some scandal erupts where modern slavery practices were taking place, is not enough. Compassion has to come with a strong sense of responsibility, which can ultimately result in a solid step forward in eradicating something that is so evidently wrong and cruel. The generation before us may have been, to a certain extent, negligent in their attitude towards this plague – even if the access to information was not as immediate as it is today – but most importantly, it is pertinent that the current generation acts differently, especially considering the generations coming after, “ (…) future generations should have the right to live in a world in which human rights took primacy over capital.”14


Fighting this epidemic means more than saving those millions of lives, it also represents saving a big part of our planet, that is being recklessly used by these huge companies, who persistently behave under the assumption that its resources are inexhaustible. The fast-fashion industry accounts for a significant portion of the worlds pollution and environment contamination. This industry has dramatic impacts on our planet, such as water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals and the increasing levels of textile waste, contributing to the spread of diseases, in the poor regions, where most of their factories are located and where the population – with so scarce resources – as to spend additional money on doctors and medicines.15


We cannot constantly proclaim the universality of human rights and rely on their self-evidence, when the reality portraits that, in 2016, more than 40 million people around the world were victims of contemporary slavery, with more than 70% being women.16 Considering dignity, as the fundamental basis for human rights, modern slavery comes at the extreme opposite, since it implies people being deprived of that essential foundation, and it contributes to their ultimate dehumanization. The victims of modern slavery are at the bottom of the supply chains, carrying the weight, of an industry that consistently, violates their rights and undermines the value of their lives. It is imperative to make their voices heard and to make sure they reverberate throughout the entire world while self-inflicting a process of questioning, concerning how we consume, what are we, in fact, consuming and the real price of the things we are consuming. If we decide not to do this than we have to deal with the conscience that we are contributing for these crimes to happen, that we are being complicit, and that consequently, we will also end having blood in our hands.




Marta Rodrigues 

researcher, Sustainable Development UN Habitat




1 ILO ‘Global Estimates of Modern Slavery’ (Geneva 2017) 9

2 OHCHR, The United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery ‘The Human Faces of Modern Slavery’ 6,7

3 Alison Behnke, Up for Sale: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery (TFCB, Minneapolis 2015) 6-7 4 A Grey, ‘The shocking numbers behind the modern slave trade’ [2017] WEF <> accessed 29 May 2018

4 A Grey, ‘The shocking numbers behind the modern slave trade’ [2017] WEF <> accessed 29 May 2018

5 Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols of Thereto (adopted 15 November 2000 UNGA Res 55/25 UNTOC) art.38


6 Kevin Bales, Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret of Saving the World (Spiegel & Grau, New York 2016) 12

7 Safia Minney, Slow Fashion: Aesthetics meets Ethics (New Internationalist, Oxford 2016) 4


8 Jean Baderschneider ‘End Modern Slavery Initiative ‘ (Statement before the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in 15 January 2017)


9 The True Cost, dir. Andrew Morgan, USA, Life is My Movie Entertainment, 2015


10 Ibid.,


11 Kevin Bales, Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret of Saving the World (Spiegel & Grau, New York 2016) 294

12 Mike Kaye and Aidan McQuade, ‘A discussion paper on: Poverty, Development and the Elimination


of Slavery’ <

content/uploads/2017/01/fco_full_dfid_meeting_background_paper_2oct2007.pdf> (October 2007) 4


13 Kevin Bales, Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret of Saving the World (Spiegel & Grau, New York 2016) 409


14 UNGA (3rd session) ‘Report on the third session of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights’ (24 January 2018) UN Doc A/HRC/37/67

15 P Perry, ‘The Environmental Costs of Fast Fashion’ Independent (London 8 January 2018) <> accessed 30 May 2018

16 ILO ‘Global Estimates of Modern Slavery’ (Geneva 2017)



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