Working conditions in the globalised textile industry

Textile factory in Bangladesh

Worldwide, there are more than 60 million people working in the textile and garment industry – most of them in developing and emerging economies. The industry is characterised by close international integration and complex supply chains. It is making a significant contribution to economic growth and development. However, in some countries, production and working conditions are not yet in line with internationally defined environmental and social standards.

The bulk of the clothes sold in Germany is produced abroad, especially in China and Bangladesh.

Remuneration and working hours

The wages paid in the textile industry are often insufficient for workers to pay their rent, buy food, pay for the schooling of their children, and pay for medical services. Even the legal minimum wage is often too low for people to make a living. For instance, in Bangladesh, the minimum wage for untrained garment workers is only about 50 euros a month.

Textile producers in Asia often face aggressive purchasing practices by international – including in some cases German – wholesale and retail traders. If they fail to meet the required price levels and deadlines, they run the risk of losing business to competitors. They then pass on this pressure to their staff, who are forced to work overtime.

In such situations, many garment workers work not just 10 or 12 hours but up to 16 hours a day. During periods of peak production, it is common for staff to work seven days a week, notwithstanding legal provisions. There is no paid leave or paid sick leave. Many workers are paid on a piece-rate basis. Violations of national or international labour standards are rarely prosecuted, so companies often do not feel any consequences when they commit violations.

Union activities

Textile workers in Jakarta, Indonesia, at a rally for decent work for all

Freedom of association is a fundamental human right. If smallholder cotton producers or textile industry workers form associations, they improve their chances of asserting their rights and demanding higher wages. Together, it is easier for them to negotiate good working conditions and business terms. However, often workers are not familiar with their rights.

And in many producing countries there are also legal barriers to the activities of trade unions. Plantation owners and textile producers try to hamper or thwart workers' attempts to organise. In some countries with large textile industries, there are also increasing numbers of informal workers who are unable to benefit from the work of trade unions.

Occupational health

Safety measures in a Vietnamese textile factory

Pesticides are used to protect large cotton monocultures. Often, the toxic substances are sprayed on crops by hand or even by aeroplanes while people are working in the fields. If employers fail to provide proper protective gear, workers' health may suffer. In most cases, this leads to respiratory and skin diseases and damage to people's eyes and nervous systems.

Many textile factories neglect health and safety measures. For instance, in the processing of fabrics, chemicals are not used properly, which can cause severe diseases. One health hazard is constituted by the sandblasting of jeans to give them their fashionable worn look. Workers in sandblasting departments have a high risk of developing silicosis, a life-threatening lung disease. Despite the risks, workers are often neither given adequate training on how to handle dangerous substances nor provided with appropriate protective clothing.

Safety standards

More than 1,100 people were killed and over 2,000 were injured when the Rana Plaza building collapsed.

Time and again, serious accidents occur because safety standards have been ignored. In 2013, the nine-storey "Rana Plaza" business and factory building near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed. The garment factory there had been producing for many Western textile companies. More than 1,100 people were killed and over 2,000 were injured. An investigation showed that several storeys of the building had been erected without a permit, and low-quality building materials had been used.

After the disaster, a compensation fund for the victims was set up which is being managed by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The disbursement of compensation payments has now been completed. More than 5,700 survivors and family members have received financial assistance.

Environmental standards

Red dye from textile production being poured into a river in Bangladesh

Where environmental standards are absent or ignored, dire consequences ensue for the natural environment and for human health. One example is the disposal of toxic chemicals used in textile factories. If they are discharged with other wastewater, rivers and other bodies of water become heavily polluted, posing a risk to the health of local people.

Cotton production, too, often results in environmental problems. Pesticides from cotton fields seep into the groundwater and drinking water. And large-scale monoculture production depletes the soil.

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