The demands of fast fashion by the Western market have led to physical and sexual abuse for women working in Asian factories supplying Gap and H&M clothing. Two separate reports published last week by Global Labour Justice have reported that more than 540 workers at factories that supply the two retailers have described incidents of harassment, threats and abuse. The allegations of abuse were recorded this year between January and May where 53 supplier factories across Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka were investigated. The reports claim that the gender-based violence is a direct result of the pressure for quick turnaround and low overheads within the fashion industry. Both Gap and H&M have announced that they vow to investigate the allegations and welcome initiatives to confront such violence, including an International Labour Organization (ILO) convention.
According to The Guardian, Tola Moeun, director of Central Cambodia, an NGO dedicated to supporting labour and human rights, states that the risk of abuse is a daily reality for female garment workers who are pushed to meet unrealistic targets in Gap and H&M supply chains. Most cases are not reported due to “fear of retaliation in the workplace.” The recently published reports found that women faced widespread sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and threats of retaliation when women refused sexual advances from bosses. Jennifer Rosenbaum, the US director of Global Labour Justice who published the reports, said: “We must understand gender-based violence as an outcome of the global supply chain structure. H&M and Gap’s fast fashion supply chain model creates unreasonable production targets and underbid contracts, resulting in women working unpaid overtime and working very fast under extreme pressure.” Both Gap and H&M have responded to the allegations. According to Al Jazeera News, Gap has made a statement that it was “deeply concerned about the troubling allegations raised by the report.” Gap further stated “our global team is currently conducting our due diligence to investigate and address the issues.” H&M also presented a similar statement “all forms of abuse or harassment are against everything that H&M group stands for” and “we will go through every section of the report and follow up on [a] factory level with our local teams based in each production country.”
These allegations are deeply concerning and it is promising that both Gap and H&M are taking the allegations seriously and are supportive of an ILO convention. However, it is disappointing that these fashion giants are only investigating their supply chains when reports of abuse are published. Western brands need to be proactive and not reactive, and should ensure that their supply chains provide a safe and slave-free working environment, whether or not allegations have been raised. Also, the culture of fast fashion does not justify abusing and underpaying workers. Therefore, the work of unions and advocacy groups are continually needed to ensure that awareness regarding gender-based violence and unsafe working conditions are being raised to keep customers, retailers and governments accountable.
Global Labour Justice have investigated factories and published reports for several years to push Western brands to improve safety and ensure slave-free workplaces. Both Gap and H&M clothes are stitched by low-paid Asian workers that end up in high-priced Western stores. Gap currently has around 3,700 stores in 90 countries and H&M has around 4,750 stores in 69 countries. The recent reports have been published the same week as the ILO holds negotiations to tackle workplace harassment. Rosenbaum states that “unions and many governments agree an ILO convention on gender-based violence is essential, although there is still opposition from some employers.”
Gender-based violence, or any type of violence whatsoever is unacceptable. Fashion giants need to ensure that their workers are protected, safe, and respected within the workplace.
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