Are your clothes contributing to worker exploitation? The hidden cost of fast fashion

Onesta Journal

Are your clothes contributing to worker exploitation? The hidden cost of fast fashion

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Worker exploitation is a key issue that Onesta is trying to combat. By manufacturing in the UK, we can make sure that all of our workers are protected and their rights are upheld. We care about everyone at every stage of our production! Sweatshops with poor working conditions and low wages are only a few things that workers are subjected to in other countries, often being put in harm's way for the sake of a t-shirt. But, by reading and learning we can start making a difference together, and we want to share with you the harsh realities of a typical supply chain and the reasons why we choose to handmake our clothing in the UK.

Fast fashion has become highly dependent on a super long supply chain that involves a lot of different people being involved in making the clothes we all wear. It is usually the design, sales, marketing, and finance sectors that are placed in high-income countries like the UK, but developing countries, such as Bangladesh, are where the pieces actually get made.

Many companies then pass the production onto other manufacturers who are not officially affiliated with the brand itself. Due to this outsourcing, fast fashion brands don’t actually have any legal obligation to make sure there are decent working conditions. Furthermore, some of the subcontractors are unregistered, meaning that they work without government regulation, making way for workers to be exploited and abused. This opportunity for abuse is made worse by the increased demand for fast fashion clothing.


Most of us have heard the term “sweatshop” in relation to the fashion industry, but it seems so far removed from us. But the reality is that illegal working conditions and underpaid wages are seen even in the UK (BooHoo’s supply chain was recently exposed for poor pay and working conditions in Leicester, UK []). Wherever this is happening, it’s the garment workers who suffer but because there are no other options for them, many are forced to continue working to try and support their families. Companies will promise decent wages, time off for school and three meals a day, so many people go willingly, usually women and children. It’s been reported that in India, 60% of the garment workers were under 18 years of age when they started working. Children are less likely to question authority and because their families receive such poor wages, it’s unsurprising that these children work to provide additional income.

Throughout the supply chain, management is mainly dominated by men, and because women and children are less likely to join garment workers unions and demand rights, causing less trouble for the company, they make up the majority of machine operators and checkers. This creates a disproportionate male-oriented power structure, making it harder to report instances of mental, physical, and sexual abuse.


Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash


Working Conditions

Aside from the issues with management, garment workers often work 14 to 16 hours per day, seven days a week. During the busiest season, it’s not unusual to find them working until two or three in the morning just to meet their deadlines. Most factories have no ventilation, causing workers to breathe in toxic chemicals like lead and formaldehyde that are used to dye the clothes. Accidents and injuries happen a lot, and sometimes more serious things can happen, like the worst industrial incident to hit the fashion industry. On the 24th of April 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,134 people and leaving nearly 2,600 injured. Just the day before the incident, management were made aware that large structural cracks were found in the building, but they ignored this, and ordered workers to return to work the next day. The building collapsed hours into their shift. The disregard for health and safety in Rana Plaza should not be happening in the world we live in today, but unfortunately it is still common and is still happening around the world. Many larger brands are pushing for lower and lower costs and these factories have to take the order or otherwise end up without any work. However, someone has to pay for the lower costs, resulting in poor wages for garment workers and limited funds to do repairs on the buildings they are in. The issue here is, who is ultimately responsible? Is it solely up to the factory owners who are pressured to accept a financial cut for their product, or should the large brands demanding a lower price be held responsible? After all, it is the large brands who profit from the cost “savings” and who have greater power to influence the fashion industry.

In addition to poor working conditions, garment workers' salaries are nothing to be desired. It’s estimated that only 2% of garment workers are paid a liveable salary. Living wage is based on local prices for housing and utilities, food and water, transport, healthcare, childcare, education, and savings, but the average worker is only paid 33 cents (24 pence) an hour. In Bangladesh, this is only a half to a fifth of the living wage that is needed for a family to have the basics.

When factories are put into a position where they must accept lower pay to produce larger quantities, people‘s lives are at stake. At Onesta, we believe it is our responsibility to ensure a transparent supply chain that prioritises living wages and safe working conditions while prohibiting forced or child labour.

Photo by Francois Le Nguyen on Unsplash

The Pandemic

Although the global pandemic has shed light on the realities of fast fashion factories, COVID-19 has also made this situation worse for garment workers. The pandemic created an economic catastrophe, and loads of high street clothing stores had to close because of everyone staying inside. This meant that big brands had to cancel millions of pounds worth of orders meaning a big loss of income for workers abroad. Because of this there were a lot of layoffs and factory closures as well as people not being paid their wages accurately or even paid at all! A study found that 16% of people who lost their jobs were owed wages and those that were lucky enough to keep their jobs, experienced worse working conditions and pay and were at a bigger risk of forced labour. Due to increased demand on the smaller workforce, many garment workers reported not being allowed to use the toilet as often or have as much access to drinking water. Another study found that only 47% of garment workers in Bangladesh said their factories had taken extra precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 with only 45% of respondents having been given a mask while working. It was also reported that by mid-September 2021, 73% of workers had not received a vaccine from the government. Is fashion really worth risking people’s lives over?  

What Can You Do?

We can all help make a difference by showing brands that we are interested in and care about what is happening in their supply chains and asking them to take accountability. By supporting brands who are open and honest about their supply chain and ethical practices we are showing that we don’t want to contribute towards worker exploitation.

  • Find out where brands are producing their clothes and look into the conditions in those areas such as how likely worker exploitation is or the child labour statistics. If the brand isn’t open about where they produce their clothes, they may have something to hide. Assessment directories such as GoodOnYou are great for giving you a run down on the labour policies of different brands.

  • Read about and join groups such as the Clean Clothes Campaign who are trying to get brands to take responsibility for such incidents. By joining in with other like-minded people we can have more of an impact than we can alone.

  • Reading blogs such as this is a great way to educate yourself about issues that are often hidden away. It’s easy for garment workers' rights to be an out-of-site, out-of-mind issue, but it’s happening even in the UK and the more we are aware of these issues, the more we can campaign for change.

  • Discuss the things you learn with others! Spreading awareness is the first step to making a change. By including other people on your sustainable and ethical journey you will also be able to support each other and reach more people in the process.