Photo: Grace Forrest / Credit: Rahil Ahmad
Each year Australia imports a whopping $US4 billion worth of clothes and accessories that may be tainted by slave labor.
The Global Slavery Index 2018, published by the Walk Free Foundation last week, ranks the garment industry as the second largest category of imports that are at-risk of being produced by victims of modern slavery. The number one spot went to electronics.
“Overall, Australia imports $12 billion worth of goods at risk of slavery in their supply chains. It’s everywhere from our supermarket shelves and to the garments we buy,” said Grace Forrest, founding director of the Walk Free Foundation.
Forrest, who was recently appointed a UN Association of Australia goodwill ambassador for anti-slavery, spoke to Vogue about the scope of the problem:
“I was in Delhi two years ago interviewing children who’d been in situations of forced labour and modern slavery in factories,” says Forrest. “One of the children I interviewed was nine years old, lured there under the pretext of being able to go to school, he was held in a garment factory for two years. He was stitching clothes for a manufacturer that can be found on every second block in New York City.”
The photo on the cover of the report shows his hands. “It connects slavery directly to fashion. If you look closely at his hands, you can see the scars. Those scars come from being beaten with scissors when there was a malfunction with the machine. He described the scissors being thrown at his hands to punish him.”
Modern slavery is present in garment factories in countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, but extends right down supply chains through every stage of raw material production. “We see it in cotton picking, for example,” says Forrest.
“Uzbekistan only very recently introduced legislation to address state-sponsored forced labour in its cotton fields, where the whole sections of the population were forced to pick cotton, including kids and pregnant women, and not being paid for it. This cotton goes into a number of massive suppliers around the world,” she added.
Supply chains are notoriously complex. Around 100 pairs of hands touch a garment during its production, and often auditing just 1st and 2nd tier suppliers doesn’t reveal labor exploitation occurring further down the supply chain.
Still, some companies are taking action. Last year, public pressure prompted Zara’s parent company Inditex to joining the likes of Gucci and Levi’s as signatories to the Responsible Sourcing Network’s cotton pledge that boycotts unethical Uzbek cotton.
“Modern slavery is not something that happens ‘over there’ that we don’t have to think about,” says Forrest.
“It’s a first world problem; it’s our problem, but it’s also our opportunity, we can change it. If we care about the people who make our products we can make a difference.”