Fashion high-end fashion industry is dominated by brands

Fashion
is a crucial part of modern societies, and clothing has become a necessity. The
high-end fashion industry is dominated by brands such as Chanel, Dior, Saint
Laurent, Hugo Boss and many more, but the more affordable clothing brands have
also made a very recognized name for themselves, such as H&M, Zara, Primark and so on. However, when it
goes beyond the simple aesthetic appeal provided by fashion, many people don’t
bother to inform themselves on the whereabouts of the garments they wear, the
manufacturing process, and the labour that goes into it. Even possibly worse,
is if said consumers are informed and aware consumers, who just decide to
ignore all these factors. The clothing industry can be perceived as quite
disappointing if we take the time to reveal the ethical issues and matters that
are concealed with such finesse. A major cause of this is a not-so-old
phenomenon, also referred to as globalization. Globalization has many advantages,
mostly from a trading perspective, but also unveils many downsides, especially
on the labour force in developing countries. With the rapid growth of
globalization, many women, children and exploited workers suffer on the daily
basis under the hands of their employers. Sweatshops, piece work, and child
labour play a very important role in this matter, since the textile and
clothing industry is one of the largest sources of industrial employment to the
day. In most cases, clothing produced in a country is sold in a different
country, for the sole reason of cheap labour force. These exploited workers are
exposed to low wages and unsafe working environments and abuses of worker and
human rights to mention the least.

In this literature review, we will discuss
whether markets based on captive employees are morally legitimate.

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This will lead to the central question of the
essay: To what
extent are consumers willing to overlook the use of captive employees in the
clothing industry?

In attempting to argument on this
question, a literature review will be used, based on academic papers, and
articles all discussing the topic of ethical/moral employee treatment in the
clothing industry.

                                 To
begin the essay, we will define moral limits of markets, as well as try to
provide an explanation as to why it has become the source of great interest
nowadays. To put everything in perspective, we will also introduce the term
“captive employee”.

Secondly, we will bring a discussion to
the essay which will elaborate on the extent to which markets can be considered
moral, and will argument its advantages as well as its disadvantages in order
to try to come up with a hypothesis to serve as the third part, so that we can
conclude on the main elements announced in the essay.

 

            In order to define the moral limits
of markets, we will first define a market, followed by a moral so we can then
assimilate them, and make sense of the term. A market can be defined from
multiple point of views, such as economics, business, or just an ordinary definition.

The most common definition provided for a market is, according to Oxford
Dictionary, “A regular gathering of people
for the purchase and sale of provisions, livestock, and other commodities.”
Similarly, according to Oxford Dictionary, moral is the state of being
“Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour”. Therefore, we can
suppose that the Moral Limits of Markets are the principles of right or wrong
behaviour in the context of the purchase and sale of all goods and services, that
leads to implications and decisions on the labour force in the clothing
industry in our case and context. 

Exploited
labour, such as settling for less than the minimal wage is a federal crime in
numerous states of the United States of America, as well as other countries
worldwide. Various brands have found key holes in order to avoid the high
labour prices and costs, simply by manufacturing in developing countries where
the workforce costs are reduced to ridiculous sums. This naturally causes a lot
of issues and is the source of worldwide controversies which will later be
elaborated on.

This
brings us to child labour and exploited labour, which rises high interest on
the term of captive employees. My best attempt at defining captive employees,
is first of all, employees who are metaphorically imprisoned as the name
suggests. These employees have very limited say in the job they occupy, whether
that’s due to family commitments to provide or are actually physically forced.

The most common captive employees up to date are women, children, prisoners and
individuals with limited occupational choices.

The
various types of captive employees are depicted and talked about more and more
nowadays, from the media, to academic papers, and so on. On January 22nd,
2017, the New York Times published an article titled “Protests in Bangladesh
Shake a Global Workshop for Apparel”. Said article discusses the rise in
protests in Bangladesh due to the low wages, and employees feeling like they
were exploited, working for practically no income. Journalists Rachel Abrams
and Maher Sattar also put the major emphasis on the consequences these workers
suffered for protesting, such as being sent to prison. The main controversy
however was the government’s involvement in this issue. The government pressured
people into silence, arrested innocent citizens and overall used intimidation
as their most powerful asset.

The
article is linked to another Bangladeshi disaster from the 24th of April
2013, where ‘the eight-storey building of the Rana Plaza collapsed’
(Javed Siddiqui, Shahzad Uddin, p. 688, 2016). According to Human
rights disasters, corporate accountability and the state: Lessons learned from
Rana Plaza, approximately 5,000 workers were employed, out of which 1,050
died and 2,500 were severely injured. These workers were the victims of lack of
safety surrounding them and the building itself. Coincidentally, all workers
were employees of multinational clothing brands, but thus the tragedy led to
many people protesting and demanding for better working conditions in order to
try and avoid another human catastrophe and human rights’ violations that could
have been avoided.

Another example of captive employees
are the U.S prison inmates, well described in the article by the Economist, Prison
labour is a billion-dollar industry, with uncertain returns for inmates, where the author criticizes the
exploitation of inmates, since in the United States, prison labour is
mandatory. These inmates work long hours generating over $ 1 billion for the
country. Whilst this money is being produced, the inmates are working for an
astonishing $ 0.90 an hour, ‘roasting potatoes or selling cattle’ (Economist,
2017). Now, this is no short of what can be defined as exploitation of
labourers, but might even be considered slavery, which is up until today still
illegal in the United States, “except as a punishment for crime” (Economist,
2017). As the article explains, women were also affected by prison labour,
where “through a deal between South Carolina’s public prisons and a private
manufacturer” female inmates were to produce lingerie “for brands like Victoria’s
Secret in the 1990s”. All of this combined can be considered morally unethical,
and raises many questions on how far industries are willing to go in the inappropriate
treatment of labourers in various industries.

Once again, moving back to the
example of Bangladesh. “Soaring
labour costs and China’s gradual shift from low-end to high-end manufacturing
have seen garment production find a new home in Bangladesh. But the doorway to
the world’s workshop remains in Hong Kong.” (Post Magazine,
2016). In the article The true cost of
your cheap clothes: slave wages for Bangladesh factory workers, writer
Simon Parry reveals shocking data: ‘Over 4 million people occupy jobs in the
clothing industry, coming down to approximately 80% of the country’s foreign
trade’ (Post Magazine, 2016). Parry also states these workers earn an excruciating
$ 68 a month, which does
not meet the sufficient amount to support an individual. The article also
refers to the Rana Plaza disaster, as did Javed Siddiqui, Shahzad Uddin,
(2016) “Human rights disasters, corporate
accountability and the state: Lessons learned from Rana Plaza”, that
workers manufacturing clothes for brands such as ‘Primark, Benetton, Walmart and other Western brands’ were
put out to incredible dangers, and the situation hasn’t changed much since.

Although ‘fire and building safety conditions have improved’ (Post Magazine,
2016) since the event, working condition are still very fragile, especially
since globalization is pressuring manufacturers to produce even more for even
lower costs, thus “working even harder” (Nazma Akter).

Nazma
Akter, former child factory worker, goes in depth in the article about these
workers being treated as slaves, “If they cannot fulfil them they have to work
extra hours but with no overtime. It is very tough; they cannot go for toilet
breaks or to drink water. They become sick.” She also explains how these
labourers get paid the minimum wage for legal reasons, but this sum is far from
the minimal living wage.

What is
even more surprising, is that whilst these exploited labourers’ pay checks simultaneously
continue decreasing, brands’ sales don’t seem to continue the same evolution.

If anything, they keep rising. Primark is well known to be manufacturing in
Bangladesh, and distributing in countries such as England, France, the
Netherlands, and the list keeps growing, and even went as far as overtook Next,
making in the UK’s 2nd clothing retailer. Based on data from statista.com,
Primark’s worldwide revenue for the financial year of 2017 hit £7,053 million.

 

            In
the past, the contested labours in the clothing industry have been deeply
discussed by many academics, and have resulted in very diverse opinions. Many
advantages have been discovered as well as numerous downsides were and are
being discussed. A knowledgeable issue in this context, is that many consumers
are not aware, not aware enough, or just simply ignorant and oblivious to these
issues. As Kaushik Basu and Pham Hoang Van argue in The Economics of Child Labour “As people become informed about
child labour, the natural reaction is to seek ways to banish child labour”.

They also explain how in the ‘U.S the Harkin’s bill bans all goods’ sales that
were manufactured using child labour as an input but whilst also mentioning
that often times, well-meaning interventions such as this, can be
counterproductive’ (p. 412). Referring to the paper, in 1993 the ILO counted
approximately 17.4 million child labourers, which is far from the real
estimate, and also keeping in mind this data is 25 years of age. So, we have to
take into consideration that this number is ever-growing. The authors suppose
that if child labour is due to the parents’ concerns to support the household, then
banning it becomes irrelevant. However, according to equations made by the
authors, supposing that adult could substitute children, this could ‘result in
multiple equilibria in the labour market, with one equilibrium where children
work and another where adult wage is high and children do not work’. However,
this seems like a utopian perception up until today. As revealed in the
research article Poverty Impedes
Cognitive Function, ‘poverty reduced cognitive functions when it comes to
finances’ (Mani,
Mullainathan, Shafir, Zhao, 2013, p. 976-980),
which therefore could explain why these labourers are willing to settle for
such low paying occupations. This creates a vicious cycle, as these employees
with reduced cognitive functions are not able to develop their knowledge and
skills, and are therefore stuck in their social class, accepting low wages, and
working long hours, producing billions of dollars annually for Western brands. In
another research article titled Apparel industry in East Asian newly
industrialized countries: Competitive advantage, challenge and implications, author Byoungho Jin
demonstrates how eastern Asian industrialized countries tried experimenting
with lowering exports due to the rising labour costs. Byoungho explains that since
the garment industry is blooming globally, the industrialized eastern Asian
countries can no longer benefit of a comparative advantage in this field, since
workers in Bangladesh per se, are willing to work for even lower hourly wages, therefore
pressuring these eastern Asian countries into developing new skillsets.  This can be seen as a positive effect for said
eastern Asian industrialized countries, because their captive employee
effective will drop, however it’s a downside to third world countries such as
India or Bangladesh, where this will create a higher demand for underpaid
workers, and as we have established by now, there is a supply too. Debra Satz’s
book Why Some Things Should Not Be for
Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, implies that “to understand how markets
and social structures are intertwined, she argues that we need to return
to the works of classical political economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo
and Karl Marx” (Denis Campbell & Nicola Davison 2012). Another uprising
disadvantage could be that market interactions erode social responsibility (Bernd
Irlenbusch, David Saxler, 2015). The study was conducted to show ‘how diffusion
of responsibility, social information, and market framing influence behaviour
when trade harms a third party’ and the results show diffusion of
responsibility led to ‘purely self-interested decisions’. This is why many
manufacturers don’t mind exploiting cheap labour, because they know that other
brands do it too, and stopping would mean they would lose benefits, and have
higher costs, whilst the other companies would continue benefitting from cheap
labour costs.

Therefore, third-parties or in our
case captive employees, are in every case exploited and morally mistreated.

Although these companies are seen in
a very bad light, it has to be stated that consumers are a large cause of their
actions, and thus can be partially accused of the wrong-doing in the garment
industry. A study conducted by Dong Shen and Marsha A. Dickson in 2001 studied ‘the
influence of clothing consumers’ ethnicity, cultural identification, and one
personality characteristic, Machiavellianism, on acceptance of unethical
clothing consumption activities’. The results were shocking, and showed that
the more an individual identifies with the United States’ culture, the more
accepting they are of ‘unethical clothing consumption activities than those
identifying with Chinese culture’. This can suppose that brands who adapt an
Americanized culture, are more likely to get away with unethical manufacturing,
and the use of captive employees, explaining the success of brand known for
immoral manufacturing such as Hugo Boss, Zara, Primark and endless more.

Consumers are willing to be rationally ignorant as long as they benefit from
the trade, getting semi-good quality or even good quality garments for
affordable prices, whilst captive employees are often working in slavery-like
conditions.

 

            More
often than not, captive employees are disregarded by markets, and are treated
unethically. More disadvantages to captive employees are traceable than the
actual advantages, and most academics and researches show that this vicious
cycle is one of the biggest issues today, yet remains unsolved. However, this
could make steps forward in the future, but would require international laws
and quotas on cheap labour, and further research needs to be done to meet the
expectations of both employers and employees. Moral and ethical limits need to
be more clearly stated in order to achieve said goal, and as Campbell, D., &
Davison, N. (2012) refer to D. Satz’s work, it could be improved on three
issues “First of all, some markets are noxious just because they score high on
the source parameters of Satz’s framework. Such cases are interesting, because
weak agency and extreme vulnerability occur often and do not always render a
market noxious. Consequently, it would be desirable to have a criterion that
tells us when weak agency and extreme vulnerability are problematic and when
they are not” (p. 19). Further research should be done on consumption
activities, and what could change them. Potentially government nudging could be
introduced, as it is a perfectly legal way of incentivizing consumers, and
perhaps governments, institutions and organizations could invest in informing,
and forming conscious consumers.

 

            This paper intends to see to which
extent consumers are willing to overlook the use of captive employees in the
clothing industry. The research reinforced that children, prisoners, low-wage
workers and women are victimized by western brands, willing to exploit cheap
labour costs to improve their revenues, but also by ignorant consumers.

Therefore, the paper concludes that consumers are willing to
overlook the use of captive employees as long as a brand has an Americanized
culture, and consumers still get to pay fairly low costs for the garments they
desire.