The hidden exploitation of fashion supply chains

Across Asia, the fashion industry is a major employer. In 2019, there were over 65 million people working in the garment trade – the majority of them women.

Working conditions are notoriously poor, made worse by the pressure from brands chasing ever-increasing profits by promoting over-consumption and fast turnovers.

When we imagine fast fashion manufacturing, we might picture rows of women in factories bent over sewing machines. But that’s not the whole story.

Outside the factory gates, millions of workers are involved in the garment business – sewing, packing and finishing clothing from their own homes or small, unregulated workshops. They are homeworkers – and they are fashion’s unseen workforce.

It is estimated that there are at least 50 million women across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Vietnam working in these roles. As homeworking is largely unregulated, these employees are often denied the minimum wage and state benefits, such as sick pay, maternity leave and pensions.

For four years my organization, Transform Trade, has been mapping garment supply chains down to the homeworker level. To shine a light on this invisible workforce, we began a photography project in Tirupur, India, giving women cameras to document their work.

We’ve also produced a practical toolkit to help businesses (and organizations working with them) improve transparency about homeworking within their supply chains.

Health costs

Often drawn from the most marginalized communities, such as Dalit families or migrant labourers, homeworkers are drafted in when factories can’t fulfil an order, or to do jobs that need to be finished off by hand. These tasks can include stitching, embroidering, finishing, packing or adding drawstrings and buttons to items. It’s repetitive work that often results in strains and long-term injuries.

With no formal workplace, homeworkers have no basic health and safety protections, often working in cramped conditions with little light and air filled with fabric dust.

In Southern India, homeworker J Sathya took a photograph of her friend (see top image): ‘Sumathi is working in a factory where raw cotton is made into cotton ropes or bundles,’ J Sathya explains. ‘It was hard for me to stay there while taking the photographs as the process creates a lot of dust, but Sumathi goes about her work without even wearing a mask.’

No minimum wage

It’s a precarious life and there’s also no guarantee of work – purchasing practices in the fashion industry are notoriously unethical, with factories expected to make last-minute changes to orders, quantities, and designs for no extra payment. Homeworkers face huge pressure to complete large orders during the build-up to Eid, or Christmas, whilst at other times they receive no work at all.

‘I get paid only by the piece, if I am not well and cannot work, I am not paid that day. There is no fixed income. Medical insurance, pension doesn’t exist,’ says E. Kamalam from Tirupur.

Workers do not receive the minimum wage and are instead paid at a piece rate per item, which is often just a few pennies. There is often no formal written contract and they are not officially recognised as workers, meaning they do not receive any state benefits.

Essential income

Despite the challenges, homeworking can provide vital income to many people who cannot work outside the home. The vast majority are women with caring responsibilities, whether for young children or elderly relatives.

‘I worked in a factory for eight years, there was a fixed income, bonus, ESI [medical insurance], PF [pension] facilities,’ says J Sathya who also lives in Tirupur. ‘In home-based work, none of these exist but I can take care of my house, kids and do the work which wouldn’t have been possible in the factory.’

Older people, too, often support themselves through homework when they are no longer able to work in a factory, or when children and in-laws are unable to provide for them.

J Sathya took this photograph of an elderly couple who live three roads away. ‘Her son is married and living away with his wife, so it’s just her and her husband and they need to earn their bread,’ she explains.

J Sathya took this photograph of an elderly couple who live three roads away. ‘Her son is married and living away with his wife, so it’s just her and her husband and they need to earn their bread,’ she explains.

‘It is difficult for them. She told me: “If my son doesn’t take care of me, I have to do this work as there is no other savings or pension to take care of me”.’ The elderly woman continued to work even with an injured wrist, J Sathya says.

‘Her husband is doing the threading, which is the part which is most painful for her. She will have gone to a government hospital as there is no medical help from the contractor or any insurance provided for workers like her. They own the house, so they don’t have to worry about rent – only living costs.’

Unrecognized labour

Over two-thirds of global fashion brands don’t have policies recognizing homeworking. Without recognition, suppliers assume that homeworking is banned and so hide their use of this kind of labour, keeping them trapped on low pay. This needs to change.

Transform Trade is currently campaigning for UK brands to share their homeworking policies with the public. Many brands deny that homeworkers exist at all in their supply chain – and so don’t even have a policy in place. We’re encouraging people to share homeworker’s stories with brands to try and persuade them to take action.

‘Working conditions are not regulated,’ says K Kavitha, also from Tirupur. ‘If we can open the eyes of the government and others to home-based workers, wages, conditions and social security will be enforced, and medical expenses will be paid.’

Even brands that do have policies for homeworking need to do more to put them into action. They must ensure these policies are explicitly shared with suppliers, and undertake comprehensive audits to expose the use of homeworking in supply chains and ensure fair wages. Only then will homeworkers stop being fashion’s least respected workers.

As R Kalivani from Tirupur says: ‘Success is when home-based work gets formal recognition. I want my work to give more opportunities and compensate fairly and improve our life.’

Share a homeworker’s story with a UK fashion brand and see the full collection of photos taken by workers at the Transform Trade website.