Risk of forced labor in the garment industry rises due to pandemic and industry response

  • The first and only report to interview a large sample of garment supply chain workers (1,200 workers in 302 factories and four countries) found an increased risk of forced labor during the pandemic
  • This risk has been exacerbated by the response of retail companies, and there is little evidence that most have acted in accordance with their social responsibilities to support their supply chain workers, despite having access to funds. recovery in the event of a pandemic.
  • A comprehensive new system was used during the study to look for indicators that a person is vulnerable to forced labor
  • Recovery from the pandemic should include support for supply chain workers to mitigate the deterioration of their living and working conditions

The deterioration in the living and working conditions of workers in clothing supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the risk of forced labor, according to a new report from the University of Sheffield.

“The uneven impacts of Covid-19 on global clothing supply chains” revealed that workers in Ethiopia, Honduras, India and Myanmar who produce many of the garments that we buy from our favorite brands in the UK and in Europe have been severely affected by the pandemic.

Both those who were fortunate enough to keep their jobs and those who lost their jobs in the past year and found a new job reported a sharp drop in their income and working conditions; and both groups experienced an increased risk of forced labor during this time.

The study is the largest to directly engage the voices of the people employed to make the clothes we buy in the UK during the pandemic, along with interviews with retailers and a review of company documentation. The precedents have focused only on the impact for multinational corporations (MNCs) that own big fashion brands and retailers. It uses a comprehensive new system to look for indicators that a person is vulnerable to forced labor.

Professor Genevieve LeBaron, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield, said: “There is no commonly accepted definition of what constitutes forced labor, and contrary to public perceptions of the modern slavery, people cannot be held against their will. or trafficked without knowing it in their situation.

“They can find themselves in a job that they cannot leave for a number of reasons: false promises and deception to keep a person at work in increasingly difficult conditions, threat of sanctions against the worker or his family. if he left, or sometimes forcing a person into debt to the manufacturer because of poor wages, causing them to struggle to meet their basic needs for housing and food. “

The study found that both groups of workers experienced indicators of forced labor, with the situation clearly deteriorating during the pandemic. He pointed out that many companies fell short of meeting their commitments to good practice; including sourcing sustainable products from manufacturers with fair working conditions, pay and no use of the farm.

Business actions by companies during the pandemic have highlighted how many business models within the garment industry fundamentally contradict these commitments, and that current government regulations do not go far enough to protect workers.

Although the study found that there were examples of companies acting in a way that honored their social commitments, these were mostly companies that directly owned factories or had long-standing partnerships with manufacturers. it was crucial to protect. In these cases, workers were more likely to keep jobs during the pandemic.

Professor LeBaron said: “It appears that many companies in the clothing industry have accessed emergency funding during the pandemic, but have also provided little or no evidence that they have honored the social responsibilities that the Most of the brands we recognize have workers in their supply chains at the same time.

“At the start of the pandemic, millions of pounds of canceled orders forced many manufacturers in places like Ethiopia to lay off staff, who then became vulnerable to exploitation in the desperate search for new jobs. .

Those fortunate enough to keep their jobs said they experienced a deterioration in working conditions and pay, exacerbating the already troubling inequalities between the countries that benefit from their work and the workers themselves. “

Already, some manufacturers are pursuing legal actions against companies that canceled orders worth millions of pounds during the pandemic, and there are growing discussions about whether the conduct of clothing brands during the pandemic was legal.

The report calls on governments to strengthen the governance of supply chains and retailers to address the damage caused during the pandemic.

Professor LeBaron added: “Our report shows that retail companies have tried to offset the potential damage from the pandemic by passing the losses on to their suppliers and workers who could least afford it. Most of these companies have very deep pockets and must act immediately to address the social challenges that their responses to the pandemic have created.

“Prohibit the sale of below-cost manufactured products and forced labor, ensure companies relieve supply chain pressures that lead suppliers to use unfair labor practices and demand brands that they report on the public rescue funds received and how they were used. be a good start in forcing retailers to be more transparent about the way they work; help tackle the growing inequalities faced by supply chain workers who meet our demand for high-end, fast-paced fashion; and help consumers make more sustainable and ethical choices when shopping. “

Jakub Sobik, communications director at the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Center (the Modern Slavery PEC), which funded the research as part of his call on the impact of Covid-19 on modern slavery in the world, said:

“This report highlights the uneven impact of Covid-19 on complex business supply chains and the need to do more to protect workers producing clothing sold around the world from exploitation.

“Businesses should think about how their actions can rectify the situation and develop different responses for the future, while working with governments to ensure a level playing field for all businesses, encouraging those that are already applying the right ones. practice.”


On June 30, 2021, a virtual roundtable will be organized to discuss the findings of “The uneven impacts of the pandemic on global clothing supply chains”, you can register and join the team here: https: //www.eventbrite.co.UK/e /pandemics-uneven-impacts-on-global-clothing-supply-chains-158701637871

Media Contact: Rebecca Ferguson, Media Relations Manager, 0114 222 3670, [email protected]

Notes to editors

“The Pandemic’s Unequal Impacts on Global Garment Supply Chains” is a collaboration between the University of Sheffield, the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Center, the Worker Rights Consortium and the Global Reporting Center at UBC.

To view an embargoed copy of the report prior to publication, please contact the Media Relations Officer.

Main statistics of the report:

Of the 1019 respondents to our survey who are still working:

  • 35 percent reported verbal abuse
  • 34% reported threats and / or intimidation
  • 22 reported unfair payroll deductions or deductions
  • 19 reported that access to things such as water and toilets was restricted
  • 39% said they were forced to work in an environment with a lack of PPE and Covid-19 precautions such as social distancing

Among those whose contracts were terminated during the pandemic:

  • Almost 80 percent have not received part or all of their severance pay
  • More than a third found themselves forced to take new work for lower pay, less job security and more danger
  • 68 percent of workers did not have a contract with their new job

University of Sheffield

With nearly 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the world’s top academics, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, university staff and students are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to be listed in the Sunday Times 100 Best Nonprofits to Work for 2018 and over the past eight years it has been ranked among the top five UK universities for student satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Laureates among former staff and students, and its alumni hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and customers include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as numerous UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The Center for Policy and Evidence on Modern Slavery and Human Rights

The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Center (Modern Slavery PEC) was established with the investment of public funds to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of law and policies designed for it. avoid. With high-quality research it commands at its core, the Center brings together academics, policymakers, business, civil society, survivors and the public on a scale never seen before in the UK to collaborate on the resolution of this global challenge.

The Center is a consortium of six academic organizations led by the Bingham Center for the Rule of Law and is funded by the Art and Humanities Research Council on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Learn more about the Modern Slavery CEP at http: // www.modern slavery pec.organization.


Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) is an independent labor rights monitoring organization based in Washington DC. The WRC conducts worker-centric surveys to assess working conditions in garment and textile factories around the world.

http: // www.workers’ rights.organization


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