Sweat-shopping: Introduction

Stop the stitch-up!

Stitching together a piece of clothing is still most efficient with human rather than mechanical labour — and as labour has become more expensive in developed countries, garment manufacturing has become a major industry for many developing countries.

Garment manufacture and export is a really important source of income and employment in countries across the world.

Garment factory worker in Bangladesh

Garment factory worker in Bangladesh.


  • In Bangladesh the garment industry employs 40% of the industrial workforce, and contributes 74% of export earnings.

  • In Cambodia 1 in 5 women aged 18-25 is employed in the garment industry and it provides 71% of export earnings.

  • China is the world’s biggest garment exporter

  • 71% of Haiti’s export income comes from the garment industry

Yet while the industry provides desperately needed jobs, they come at a cost. While those doing the work may be ‘lucky’ to have a job, when they are labouring under unacceptable conditions and failing to receive a fair reward for their labour, they are also still being exploited.

Workers making [clothes for the Arcadia group], many of whom were fearful of talking to a reporter, described how they are kept in crowded dormitories and work from 7am until late. “When I go to bed at the end of the day, I lay down and weep,” said one woman.

Sunday Times, Revealed: Topshop clothes made with ‘slave labour’, August 12, 2007,

Another tailor who makes clothes for H&M… said up to 15 workers a day collapsed and had to be given medical attention. Workers and unions claim the conditions in the factories led to two tragic incidents this year.

In February, a young woman hanged herself in the toilets of one factory, Triangle Apparels, owned by Gokaldas Exports. A report by a number of Indian NGOs alleges that she was verbally sexually harassed and repeatedly refused permission for leave on the day she died.

Guardian, The Sweatshop high street, September 3 2007

These examples are not one-off aberrations, which hit the headlines because they are so shocking. They are just a few everyday examples of the poverty wages, long hours and denial of basic rights that are endemic in the garment industry.

Public pressure has made a difference. Recent years have seen a huge increase in the number of companies publishing codes of conduct, which set out minimum standards for workers, or joining organisations such as the Ethical Trading Initiative. Some companies have built whole advertising campaigns around their ethical commitments; others have introduced small ranges of clothing made from Fairtrade and Organic cotton.

Yet most of the clothes sold on our high streets or branded with our universities’ logos are still made under unacceptable conditions. And companies in the UK continue to drive a race to the bottom in living standards for workers across the globe, through business practices that fundamentally undermine their ethical commitments.

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