Human Rights In Fashion

Human Rights

An Introduction to Human Rights and Fashion

The fashion industry’s role in human rights violations is disguised behind the glitz and the glamour. The industry is known for its exclusive parties, the high-end lifestyle of models and designers, and couture clothing.

But behind the dazzle of expensive jewels and bespoke clothing, lies the hidden truths of underpaid models, exploited garment workers, child labour, discrimination and degrading working conditions. Human rights violations in fashion are not at the centre of global discussions. It is time to address this endemic and proffer solutions for the protection of the common man in fashion.

So, what role exactly does human rights play in fashion?

The fashion industry thrives off working environments where exploitation and degradation are rife. The competition to produce the cheapest clothing in the quickest time places manufacturers under pressure to cut costs, demand longer working hours, and outsource to unregulated factories. The greater the demand for fast fashion, the more the industry is able to sustain and profit off labour exploitation.

We have compiled a list of the biggest human rights violations in the fashion industry today:

The 2018 Global Slavery Index identified the garment industry as being amongst the top five industries with the biggest imports of products at risk of modern slavery. With a high demand for cheap labour and inadequately regulated supply chains, the fashion industry is rife with the most vulnerable and exploited workforces, including those who have been trafficked and trapped in forced labour.

Manufacturers are often forced to outsource work to meet production targets, and will look for the cheapest and most efficient workforces. This might mean subcontracting unregulated and unprotected workforces composed of people trafficked and coerced into unpaid labour. The more brands push for lower prices, the more they encourage exploitative working conditions.

International Labour Organization
Credit: "Young girl employed in the garment industry" by ILO PHOTOS NEWS. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Child labour

There are an estimated 170 million children in child labour. Amongst the countries categorised as the highest risk for child labour are China, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam – four of the top clothing manufacturing countries. Children living in poverty are vulnerable to accepting exploitative, demanding and low-paid work, such as is available in garment manufacturing. They are often contracted into unregulated factories or informally, working at home doing finishing work such as sewing sequins or buttons on clothing. Child labour is also prevalent at the very initial stages of the supply chain, with a huge number of children employed in the cotton industry. Children are desirable as their small fingers do not damage the crop.


In these workplaces, a child’s right to protection from danger, to education, and to enjoy their childhood is compromised.

Unfair pay

Not every country has a legal minimum wage. For those that do, it is important to remember that a minimum wage is not the same as a living wage nor is it always enforceable. Monthly minimum wages in chief manufacturing countries range from $26 a month in Ethiopia to $340 a month in Turkey. According to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, businesses have a duty to ensure living wages are paid regardless of an individual nation’s law. This means that fashion brands must take responsibility for the wages of garment manufacturers at every stage of their supply chains.

In 2019, a report found that 85 per cent of brands made a commitment to living wages, but none could provide a clear outline of how they followed through with this commitment down their supply chains.

NYU Stern Centre for Business and Human Rights
Credit: "Thousands of garment workers and their unions rally on the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 garment workers" by Solidarity Center. Licensed under CC-BY-ND 2.0.

Indecent working conditions

In April 2013, thousands of garment workers were injured or killed when the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed in Bangladesh. The incident is reflective of the multiple rights-violations workers suffer every day, simply by going to work. Garment manufacturers are continually asked to work in environments which are physically unsafe. The Rana Plaza factory building had visible cracks in its walls, but when workers speak out and stand up for their rights, they are often silenced.

This includes workers being targeted or abused for leading or joining a labour union. Protests in Bangladesh in 2018-2019 lead to thousands of workers being dismissed and black-listed, now unable to find work again. There is often very little protection of labour rights in supply countries, meaning restrictions on working hours, protection against unfair dismissal or from working with hazardous chemicals are ignored.


Gender based discrimination is prevalent in the fashion and garment industry. 80 per cent of the garment manufacturing workforce are women. However, within this sector, women are rarely in high-paid or managerial positions. 84 per cent of women in the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh are in low paid positions. On the other hand, 95 per cent of line managers are men.

Being in subordinate positions, women are also subject to physical and sexual abuse. 1 in 7 female garment workers said they had left their job due to harassment. Women also face discrimination for becoming pregnant. Many are forced to leave their jobs or are afraid the physical demands of the work might lead to miscarriage. Being a majority female workforce, the human rights violations suffered in the fashion industry disproportionately affect women.

Sisters for Change

Identifying these human rights violations is effective in bringing much needed awareness to a decaying system that has gone unreported in the last decade. It is a potent exercise in recognising how brands that influence consumers are complicit in perpetuating and institutionalising these unethical and inhumane practices.

Multinational fashion corporations choose to keep these complex, poorly regulated structures in place because they profit off cheap and exploitative labour in supply countries. When we as consumers buy clothes from these brands, we are further encouraging these exploitative practices. It is, therefore, our duty to uncover these abuses and hold brands to account. Through advocacy, activism and human rights literacy, we have the power to push the fashion industry to do better, be better and implement a rights-based approach in the protection of the common man in fashion.

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