The Costs of Labor and Labor Treatment in the Textiles Industry
One of the major movements in the textile industry in recent years has been the drive for better working conditions and pay for those who work in the industry. Unfortunately, as in most areas, change is patchy – coming more quickly in some parts of the world – and in certain sectors of the industry – than in others. While there is a growing awareness amongst consumers regarding worker health and well-being in the textile industry, there are still, unfortunately, still widespread injustices. There is still much work that has to be done in lowering the human cost of textiles. In this article, we will explore the costs of labor for clothing manufacturers in a wide range of different textiles, and explore the issues involved in worker treatment and conditions.
Looking at these issues can help both those in the textile industry and consumers to work towards true sustainability, as well as addressing the obvious ethical concerns that these issues can often bring up. What is more, looking at how different fabrics, and different areas of the world, compare in these regards can help in making industry and consumer decisions.
Labor Costs & Labor Treatment With Regard to Weighted Blankets
Savvy consumers are becoming more interested in the true origins and cost of the items that they choose to buy and bring into their homes. Many people are becoming increasingly aware that the end cost of a product does not always reflect its true cost in terms of humanity and the environment. Those with ethical concerns are increasingly seeking out products that reflect their ideals.
Weighted blankets are a product designed to enhance the health and well-being. But those who think more deeply know that products that have disenfranchised or harmed workers, no matter how comfortable they may feel, are a poor ethical choice. For this reason, more and more people are seeking out products that are certified to show that workers’ rights, health, and welfare were taken into account – alongside the health and well-being of the end-user.
When choosing a weighted blanket, as when choosing any textiles, the whole life-cycle of the materials used, and the entire supply chain must be taken into account. This article will aim to elucidate some of the main problems in the industry, moves being made to improve it, and also examine which materials for weighted blankets might offer the most ethical choices when it comes to labor costs and worker treatment. It will aim to show that not only are the materials used important, but also where these come from, and the working conditions in those particular places.
The History of Labor in the Textile Industry
Before we begin to delve a little deeper into the costs of labor and labor treatment with regard to a range of different textiles, it may be helpful to first take a look at the history of textile work and workers. Understanding how working in textiles has changed over the ages can help us understand how things came to be as they are today, and also, perhaps, provide inspiration for positive, sustainable change moving forwards.
Before the mid-Eighteenth Century, most textiles were made in the home, both for domestic use and on a small-scale commercial basis. The main products manufactured in households were spun yarn, woven cloth, knitted garments, and lace (1). Women and girls usually drove production for domestic use, while men sometimes undertook more commercial weaving at home. Of course, at this stage, exclusively natural fibres were used – mainly cotton, wool, flax, and hemp.
Throughout the latter part of the Eighteenth Century, there was a gradual transition from a household system to a system of shops external to main domiciles. This transition was slow and happened more quickly in some parts of the world than in others. In some areas, there was an intermediary, additional stage before the shop system fully came in – a system of itinerant workers (2). In this stage, itinerant workers (for example, weavers) would travel around as ‘help for hire’ – being brought in to help out with specific tasks in households.
During this intermediary period, supplementary businesses external to households also popped up, to fulfill tasks such as fulling, carding, dyeing, and bleaching, that were difficult to do in the home.
Mechanization processes that began to emerge (first in Britain) throughout the latter part of the century led to the formation of ‘manufactories’ which began to take the place of household production. The speed increases offered by factory production meant that it quickly came to dominate the textiles industry. However, piecemeal work was still often carried out in many homes, and after being given materials by a factor or agent, workers would then return finished clothes or goods to factories and be paid for each piece they had completed.
Both in Europe and in the United States, women (and children) entered into factory work alongside some male workers – continuing the work they had previously done at home in a larger, commercial setting. The vast majority of factory workers were women – a major factor in social change (3). Ongoing mechanization throughout the Industrial Revolution rapidly changed how textiles were made, while Colonialism was responsible for shaping much of the landscape with regard to the growth of the raw materials required to create textiles on a wider scale.
Increasing trade, competition, and increasing mass production meant a drive for ever lower costs. The drive for lower costs often led to shifts in the operating locations of textiles industries. For example, in the United States, the industry largely relocated from New England and the Northern States to the South. This was largely to take advantage of a large pool of low-cost and unorganized labor. These new workers were initially generally white, unskilled farm-workers. The same drive for lower-cost workers and to pay lower wages has characterised much of the textile industry ever since. Over the 20th Centuries, and to the present day, there has been a continued shift of textiles jobs from higher-wage to lower-wage environments. Textile production and employment have declined in the United States and Western European nations and grown in a number of developing nations. This shift has been accentuated and increased by the growing demand in the developed nations for ever-lower cost clothing and textiles, and the demands of ‘fast fashion’.
Labor in the Textiles Industry Today
China, India, Pakistan, Bulgaria, and Turkey are amongst the countries that have seen an increase in textile work and manufacture. Leading low-wage countries include Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Some Asian countries which formerly offered low-wage labor in the industry, such as Japan and South Korea, have seen a decline, as production moves to even lower cost areas. The drive for lower wages has also driven the demographics of workers – for example, low-wage countries often employ far more women than men, as in these nations, female labor often costs less than male labor.
Today, the textile industry is no longer a national industry but a global one, with supply chains stretching all across the globe. Modern production and distribution of garments have created “the global assembly line” Power has shifted from producers to traders and retailers and buyers set the terms for what is to be produced, how fast, and at what price.
Current Concerns Regarding Labor in the Textile Industry
Unfortunately, while textiles manufacture can bring jobs, the competitive conditions mean that poorer countries are often coerced to offer the cheapest workers and the most flexible (unregulated) conditions (4). Global production and trade are largely controlled by a relatively small number of corporations. Decentralised production networks and a lack of transparency in the industry mean that there is often a disconnect between workers and the end consumer. Unfortunately, few consumers are aware of the true human cost of creating the textiles they use.
How and where workers are employed has a large bearing on the conditions that they experience. In low-wage countries, the proportion of the labor force often still works from home, on a piece-rate basis. The use of contract labor, rather than salaried employees, is also common and widespread in a number of countries, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Turkey.
Again, this is driven by demand for lower prices, as well as by the demand for shorter lead times. Unfortunately, contract workers are often not protected by minimum wage legislation. Employing workers on a contract basis also restricts their ability to organise, and reduces the opportunities for collective bargaining (5). Casual working and subcontracting to homeworkers have both been used as strategies in certain countries to circumvent labor laws and lower costs.
Even where government legislation on minimum wages does apply to workers, such legislation is often woefully inadequate – minimum wages often do not reflect the true cost of living. Many workers in the textiles industry live and work in terrible conditions, barely able to make ends meet and deprived of the basic human right of a true living wage.
As we will see below, as we delve more deeply into the labor costs and working conditions in different textile industries – the global textile industry can also lead to a range of concerning health and safety issues – over and above the issue of fair pay.
In order to understand the true, human cost of cotton it is essential to go right back to the source – to the cotton farmers who produce the raw material for the textiles trade. Around 90% of the 100 million households directly involved in cotton production are found in developing countries. An estimated 350m people work in the cotton sector. Cotton prices are volatile and in long-term decline – falling, since the rise of synthetic fabrics, to not much more than half the price of 1960s levels (6). This has obviously placed a strain on the industry and, of course, lower-level workers have borne the brunt of this decline.
Wages differ markedly between those in developed nations like the United States and poorer economy countries. Government subsidies for cotton farmers in rich cotton-growing nations (particularly the United States) place more strain on small-scale growers in developing countries. It is estimated that subsidy schemes in developed nations resulted in an annual loss of income for African farmers of $250 million (7).
Unfortunately, there is also a significant problem with child labor and forced labor in cotton farming. In India, it has been reported, over 400,000 child workers work in the cottonseed industry, some working 9-12 hours a day. Forced and child labor is also major concerns in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.
Unfortunately, these workers, and many other workers in cotton farming, also suffer from health problems relating to exposure to pesticides (8). Pesticides are commonly used to grow cotton commercially. Unfortunately, the risks to workers from non-organic farming are significant. For this reason, choosing organic cotton is one way to mitigate the human cost of cotton textiles.
Wool exemplifies the issue that all too often when there is a decline in demand and pressure is put on a given material within the textile industry, the workers at the raw material stage are those who suffer the most. Demand for wool has dramatically declined over the last few decades, as cotton and synthetic fibres have gained an ever-larger market share. The wool industry has broadly faced a precipitous decline, which has often spelled bad news for sheep farmers, and those involved in greasy wool production.
Under increasing pressure to cut costs, sheep farmers and shearers are paid by the fleece rather than by the hours of work they undertake. This not only has a detrimental effect on animal welfare but also means that the economic pressures of sheep farming for wool can add up. While most of the emphasis in the ethics of the industry is on the treatment of the animals, it is also worth noting the human cost of the wool industry, in which those who do the most work are often rewarded far from fairly for their work. While wool is largely produced in comparatively affluent countries, and so wool workers are often better off than counterparts in other industries, farmers and wool producers are often still often under-compensated when wages are compared to those of other industries.
Certain sectors of the wool industry are benefiting from the more recent rise in ethical and eco-friendly consumers, who value more expensive – yet more ethical and sustainable- products. Innovative workers within the wool industry are able to command higher wages (and higher prices for fleeces) due to their best practice. Those who care about the cost of labor and labor treatment in the textiles industry are recognising that paying a fair price for a superior product is the best way forward, and recognising that consumers can play a role in ensuring parity within the industry. When small-scale sheep farmers and wool producers are compensated adequately for their work, they are better able to ensure high levels of animal welfare and environmental practice at all times.
Compared to other natural fibres, silk production, also known as sericulture, has a large carbon and water cost. It consumes a higher quantity of fertilizer and water than other fibres produced (9). Unfortunately, the silk industry is also embroiled in a range of problematic and unethical practices, such as bonded and child labor, low wages, and inequality.
Silk originates in China, and the majority of the world’s silk is still produced there. India also produces a relatively high proportion of global silk. Other smaller, though still significant producers include Uzbekistan, Brazil, Iran, Thailand, and Vietnam. In each of these areas, there are a range of issues surrounding workers in the industry.
Sericulture is a labor-intensive process, involving huge amounts of human labour to obtain and process the fibre. In China, and other main producing nations, silk production can be an important rural employment – preventing migration to big cities and allowing rural communities to be sustained. Unfortunately, many of those employed in the industry work for minimum wages (which are often not sufficient to support a basic standard of life).
In India, much has been done by charities and NGOs to reduce child labour since such issues came to the fore in the 1990s. Unfortunately, however, in India’s main silk producing regions of Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, bonded children as young as five still work more than 12 hours a day in the silk industry, suffering an array of shocking human rights abuses (10).
Another highly controversial labor issue within the silk industry is that certain brands, like Danish brand Carcel, are using silk manufactured by women prisoners in correctional facilities. Prison labor is a controversial issue. While some argue that the women, usually paid the minimum wage for the country where they are located, are giving skills, training, and opportunities that can reduce recidivism and help them when they get out. Others. however, argue that it is exploitative to use the labor of those who are incarcerated to turn a profit (11).
Bast fibres such as flax and hemp can be amongst the most sustainable natural fibres. One of the positive characteristics of such fibres is that they require far less water, and far fewer pesticides and herbicides to farm than conventional cotton. This is not only good for the environment but can also be better for agricultural workers, since they are far less likely to be exposed to harmful chemicals during the course of their work than those working in non-organic cotton production.
Around 85% of the flax grown for linen is grown in European countries – especially France and Belgium. However, some are also produced in Russia, and some in China. In spite of its long history of use and sustainability credentials, however, linen accounts for just 1% of global textile consumption (12).
While the EU, Russia, Canada and North Korea all grow hemp for textiles, China is the largest hemp fibre producer, growing around 20-30% of all hemp grown globally. Hemp too accounts for only a small proportion of the global textiles industry – less than 1%. Hemp is widely considered to be one of the most sustainable natural fibres. Unfortunately, a 2015 study found that old and inefficient processing techniques used in the main producing area of China are undermining hemp’s environmentally sound credentials (13).
As with other natural fibres for the textile industry, the labor costs and labor treatment vary considerably depending on where in the world the raw materials are grown. Generally speaking, Chinese production raising considerably more issues for workers and the environment than European production.
One of the main reasons why bast fibres such as those described above are not more competitive within the textiles industry is that, regardless of the degree of mechanisation, they are still relatively labor intensive to farm and to produce (14).
Polyester & Other Synthetic Fibres
Polyester is the most common and widespread of the synthetic fabrics. It accounts for more than half of the global textiles market. Much of the success of this textile comes from the fact that it is cheap to produce – this, in turn, is also due to the cheap labor costs associated with producing it. As demand for this versatile fabric continues to increase, this, in turn, increases the pressure to ever lower the costs of labor, and drives a string of unfair practices and human rights abuses in some developing nations where the material is produced and processed into finished goods.
Those with even a basic understanding of sustainability within the textiles industry will likely already be aware of the many environmental concerns surrounding this and other synthetic fabrics. Fewer, perhaps, are aware of the human cost of creating fabrics from petrochemicals.
A second string to concerns over synthetic fabrics is human health and safety. All too often, such concerns are subsumed by the demands of the ever-growing market. The synthetic-fibres industry uses large quantities of toxic and flammable materials. As the filaments emerge from the spinnerets to be dried in air or by means of spinning, large amounts of solvent vapours are released. These constitute a considerable toxic and explosion hazard. These things, do, of course, pose a considerable threat to many working in the industry.
A number of studies indicate a high incidence of colorectal cancer amongst workers in synthetic textile mills. Exposure to Azo dyes often used on synthetic fabrics have also been associated with bladder cancer in numerous industries. Furthermore, carbon disulfide, an organic compound used in the preparation of synthetic textiles, has been shown to increase mortality from ischemic heart disease (15).
As a semi-synthetic textile, rayon or viscose can sometimes be a better alternative to fully synthetic textiles that are derived from fossil fuels. However, it is important to note that these textiles too can come at considerable cost to human workers within the industry.
Around 75% of the pollution from the standard viscose/rayon process takes the form of air pollution, largely from the highly volatile substance, carbon disulfide (16). Unfortunately, the process also exposes workers in the textiles industry to this air-borne substance, which can cause significant and serious health problems. While the carbon disulfide is lost before the rayon or viscose gets to the consumer, the damage to rayon workers should be a consideration for consumers who wish to make ethical and sustainable purchasing decisions. Historically, there have been a number of poisoning incidents, and while some production facilities have taken measures to improve worker safety, worker safety continues to be a major concern (17).
By avoiding the use of carbon disulfide, lyocell fibre manufacture does not share the environmental and worker safety concerns mentioned above. Lyocell textiles are processed using a closed loop process. 98% of the amine oxide used in the manufacture is typically recovered and so there are fewer concerns relating to environmental pollution. The amine oxide is classed as non-toxic on the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for lyocell.
Lyocell’s tendency to fibrillate, or pill, and its relatively low surface energy mean that it does not always accept dyes well, however, and post-processing may still pose a threat to workers. Manufacturers use a variety of chemical processes, enzyme baths and dye treatments which may or may not be eco-friendly (18).
For this reason, it is important to look at the whole life cycle when trying to ascertain the true labor cost of a given textile fabric.
Movements & Certifications in the Textile Industry
The certifications and eco standards that are present in the textiles industry today grew out of two associated movements – the drive for environmental protection, and the push for improved worker conditions and workers’ rights.
The push for improved working conditions and wages came to prominence in the 1990s, as concerns grew over the human cost for those working in the textiles industry. The Campaign for Labour Rights was inaugurated in 1993, and many more new organisations whose aim was to address labour conditions in textiles factories were formed over the next few years after a number of high-profile exposés drew attention to the issues (19). This movement grew up alongside the environmental movement, and led to the formation of a number of different certifications and standards which address the human cost of the textiles industry.
Many environmental standards also have social criteria, which look to address labor costs and labor treatment within the industry. For example, the Global Organic Standard, while addressing organic production for cotton and other raw natural materials for textiles, also covers worker rights.
Global Organic Standard
Throughout all stages of the manufacture of a GOTS product where workers are employed, certain social criteria apply. Namely:
- Employment is freely chosen (There is no slavery, servitude, bonded or indentured labour and workers may leave employment as and when they wish.)
- Workers may form trade unions and use collective bargaining, and are not discriminated against due to their activities in this regard.
- No child labour may be used.
- No discrimination is present with regard to race, caste, religion, origin, age, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, political or union affiliation, social background or any other condition that could give rise to discrimination.
- Working conditions are safe and hygienic.
- Wages and benefits are a fair reward for work.
- Working hours are not excessive.
- No precarious employment is provided.
- Harsh or inhumane treatment is prohibited.
- Companies have a social accountability policy to ensure that social criteria can be met.
Companies must also be able to show that they are an ethical business, not involved in any act of corruption, extortion or embezzlement, etc..
Another important set of standards pertaining to both the environment and workers rights within the textiles industry are those of Oekotex. The Oekotex 100 Standard shows that a company is not involved in the use of a range of harmful substances. The SteP Certification further shows that a company not only eschews these harmful substances but also covers overall environmental performance, and also occupational health and safety and social responsibility.
When consumers see these certifications, they can rest easy knowing that workers were cared for, and not treated poorly, throughout the entire supply chain of a product.
Fairtrade’s new Textiles Standard and Programme, administered by the independent certification body, FLOCERT, is designed to tackle challenging and unsafe working conditions within the entire textiles supply chain. By committing to Fairtrade, companies can help to improve the social and economic well-being of the workers across the entire production chain. Consumers know, when they see this label, that working conditions and workers have been taken into account. The standard is available for cotton and other sustainable materials (20).
These are just some of the best-known certifications which can give consumers some peace of mind when it comes to worker rights and labor conditions within the textiles industry. Choosing to buy only certified products can help consumers make sure that they are not buying into unfair practices, and do not have blood on their hands.
As you can see from the above, the true cost of textiles is far more than just financial. Each and every purchase that we make also has a cost for our planet, and for the people involved in producing and manufacturing those products that we buy. It is vitally important, moving forward, that the labor costs and labor treatment in the textiles industry are taken into account, and that we halt the ever-growing drive for lower and lower prices. It is time to recognise the true human cost of textiles, and recognise that paying a little more for our finished products is a small price to pay for human lives.
(1)Abbott, Edith. ‘Women in Industry: A Study in American Economic History.’ New York and London: D. Appleton, 1910. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1967.
(2)Tryon, Rolla. ‘Household Manufactures in the United States, 1640–1860: A Study in Industrial History.Chicago:’ University of Chicago Press, 1917.
(3)Thomas Dublin .’Transforming women’s work: New England lives in the industrial revolution.’ Cornell University Press. pp.82, August 1995.
(4)Delahanty, Julie, ‘A Common Thread: Issues for Women Workers in the Garment Sector ‘ WIEGO, 1999
(5)Man-Kwun Chan, ‘Contract Labor in Global Garment Supply Chains’, 2013.
(6)Commodity briefing: Cotton, Fairtrade Foundation January 2015
(8)International Labor Rights Forum et al, ‘Child bondage continues in Indian Cotton Supply Chain’, September 2007.
(9)Astudillo, Miguel F.; Thalwitz, Gunnar; Vollrath, Fritz (October 2014). “Life cycle assessment of Indian silk”. Journal of Cleaner Production. 81: 158–167.
(11)Eco Warrior Princess, ‘Fashion from Prison Labor: Exploitation or Ethical Business?’ https://www.freedomunited.org/news/fashion-from-prison-labor-exploitation-or-ethical-business/
(12)Masters of Linen (2014) Facts and Figures
(13)Van Eynde H. (2015) Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of hemp and cotton fibres used in Chinese textile manufacturing, University of Leuven
(14)Amaducci, S., Scordia, D., Liu, F.H. & Zhang, Q., 2014. Key cultivation techniques for hemp in Europe and China. Industrial Crops and Products
(15)Babel & M. Tiwari, ‘Occupational health hazards in textiles industry’, Asian Journal of Home Science, Vol 9, Issue 1, June 2014, 267-271
(16)Ray A. Smith, ‘Shades of Green: Decoding Eco Fashion’s Claims’, The Wall Street Journal, 2008
(17)Paul David Blanc (2016). Fake Silk The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon. Yale University Press. p. 325
(18)Tencel: Sustainable but not necessarily healthy https://organicclothing.blogs.com/my_weblog/2005/11/tencel_sustaina.html
(19)’An Overview of Ecolabels and Sustainability Certifications in the Global Marketplace’, Corporate Sustainability Initiative, Duke University, 1st October 2010
(20)Fairtrade, Fairtrade Textile Production Mark, Fairtrade International, 2018