Fast fashion at a human cost - Zara fashion retailer chooses sales over ethics

Fast fashion at a human cost - Zara fashion retailer chooses sales over ethics

Zara, a brand of the Inditex Group, is one of the largest fashion retailers in the world, and a favourite for high street shoppers in Europe, with approximately 3000 stores spread across 96 different countries. But one important question to ask about this influential store is, just how ethical are their labour policies? Over the past few years, Zara has had numerous allegations filed against them for their forced labour and ‘slave labour’ conditions in its factories across countries such as Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Myanmar. 

Over the past few months, many more fast fashion shoppers have come to realise the true harm that their shopping addiction has on the workers producing these items of clothing. Many more have even begun to boycott Zara specifically for its inappropriate association with forced labour camps in China and degrading working conditions in its Brazilian factories. 

Fast fashion brands such as Zara, expose their workers to extremely harsh working conditions around the world. International companies such as Zara, H&M, Pretty Little Thing, Asos, Bershka and many more, hide their labour abuses behind a complicated line of supply chains, often in the world's developing countries to ensure there are little labour regulations involved.

The issue lies with the international brands sourcing chains, where fashion brands outsource from foreign markets, mainly from South East Asia. This proves difficult for companies to monitor the rights of their workers directly, as they rely on second and third-hand suppliers. 

 

Fashion and forced labour

In March 2021, Zara’s mother brand, Inditex, released a statement on their website that confirmed the company's labour policies. Inditex Group stated that they “take a zero-tolerance approach towards forced labour of any kind and have stringent policies and actions in place to ensure that it does not take place anywhere in our supply chain”. 

This statement had been visible on the company’s website until 25 March 2021 and was removed the next day. Inditex had explained the reasoning behind the removal of such an essential statement. After backlash hit many fast fashion brands, such as Zara, regarding their supply chains in the North-western region of China, Xinjiang, many statements separating production from forced labour factories in Xinjiang had been released. 

Similarly, fast fashion brand H&M had also removed a statement condemning forced labour in Xinjiang, due to supposed confrontation with China over the continuation of their supply chains in the region. For many companies standing up against the forced labour taking place in China, the stakes are high, as they will indeed be choosing between sales or the ethics of their company. This is emphasized by the fact that China is the world's biggest fashion market, meaning that many companies such as Zara and H&M have chosen to remove their statements on forced labour. Without the Chinese supply chains, many companies would not have received the growth that they had been working for. 

This action is merely an example of one of the many brands, such as H&M, that have taken down statements due to pressure from China over its supply chains and cotton sourcing in the Xinjiang region. Zara’s actions can be due to intimidation received by other brands from China when condemning forced labour. Since 2016 the region has been rife with forced labour and re-education camps, with more than half of the population of the region made up of Uighur Muslims, approximately 12 million Uighurs. 

Workers in Zara’s factories in Brazil were restricted with their freedom of movement and have been forced to work in cramped workshops in the city of Sau Paolo.

These forced labour camps have been defended by the Chinese government by defining them as ‘job training centres’ that are working to benefit the Uighur population. However, despite heavy censorship and security, labour camps in Xinjiang subject workers to poor living and labour conditions, physical and mental abuse and forced sterilisation for Uighur women.

With Xinjiang being one of the leading producers of cotton in the world, it is extremely concerning when it comes to investigating brands such as Zara and their supply chain transparency. Most of these are education and job centres’ have been linked to cotton supply chains directly going to the most popular high street fashion brands. 

Another example of abuses taking place under third party supply chains can be seen in Zara’s factories in Brazil. The fashion retailer is sourcing clothing from Brazilian factories that have been engaging in modern slavery conditions with workers working up to 16 hours a day. These Brazilian workers were additionally restricted with their freedom of movement and have been forced to work in cramped workshops in the city of Sau Paolo.

According to the investigations that have taken place throughout the past 8 years, the Brazilian workshop had risked Zara entering a list of companies engaging in slave labour conditions. With this, in 2015, Zara Brazil had also been found engaging in discriminatory labour practices, with the workshops banning the hiring of legal immigrants completely. 

 

Transparency to protect employees

Transparency is essential in every business, regardless of its size or influence. It is needed to ensure that fair labour rights and the well-being of workers are being upheld through a business’s production process and its supply chains. 

However, it must be recognised that policy transparency does not account for respectful labour policies and practices. For this reason, brands may present an acceptable amount of information about their policies, yet continue to act in an unethical manner, which in due time has seen to harm employees working under their supply chains. That being said, transparency is one of the most important tools for brands such as Zara to protect its community, the environment and its employees. 

For fast-fashion brands such as Zara, it is extremely concerning that customers are not informed about the mistreatment workers have been facing behind the scenes in their supply chain factories scattered across different continents. 

 

COVID-19 and its effects

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zara employees had found themselves devastated by the treatment they had been receiving. While the pandemic served many employees in Zara's factories in Spain well, employees in the Myanmar factories had been hit extremely hard. 

In Spain, Zara had been presented as a hero with the coming of the pandemic, with 11 of its clothing factories being switched to production of personal protective equipment (PPE) by Amancio Ortega, the billionaire founder of parent company Inditex. These new factories had now produced masks, hospital gowns and imported ventilators for the Spanish hospitals. During this time, however, the voices of Zara’s employees overseas were not heard. The workers who were in need of sanitary working conditions and healthcare equipment had been stripped of it by the very owner that had been producing them in Spain. 

Labour rights and access to health care should not be discriminative, instead, labour policies should be the same across all of Zara’s warehouses and factories

Labour rights and access to health care should not be discriminative, instead, labour policies should be the same across all of Zara’s warehouses and factories, to ensure that the rights of workers are being respected.

With many orders being cancelled and stores being temporarily shut down at least 500 workers in the Myanmar factory had been fired. Whilst many were left to continue working an excruciating amount of 11 hours per day, with only one day off a week. In addition to this, workers get paid $3.50 to $4.75 per day, leaving them penniless with the coming of the pandemic. 

 

Unpaid workers in Turkey

It would not be possible to discuss Zara’s labour violations without addressing its factory conditions in Turkey. In 2017, labour violations had been so dire that Turkish factory workers had begun to sew pleas on the inside of clothing items to make customers aware of the mistreatment they are receiving.

These pleas had been stitched into clothing asking for help, they had exclaimed to the customers that although they had produced these clothes, they had not been paid a single dime for their backbreaking efforts. The factory that had been supplying Zara and other fashion retail giants was called Bravo Tekstil and are still yet to pay off the wages and payments of over 140 workers. 

 

Investigations for “crimes against humanity”

On the 2nd of July, prosecutors in France opened an investigation into four of the world's leading fast fashion brands, one of them being Inditex, the owner of Zara. These investigations have been opened on Japanese fast retailer Uniqlo, Skechers, SMPC and Inditex for allegations of engaging in “crimes against humanity” in China’s Xinjiang region.

These brands are now under investigation due to the accusations that they have been working in China and exploiting the Uyghur population in Xinjiang through forms of forced labour. Yet, these brands have further denied any links of their production to the forced labour camps in China. 

Zara’s owner, Inditex strongly rejected the claims made against them and continues to exclaim that they have zero tolerance for all forms of forced labour, with established policies and procedures put in place to make sure such labour violations do not take place throughout the supply chain. 

Workers caught under Zara’s supply chain in China have been reported to be working in fenced-in factories, both indoors and outdoors, with every move surveillance. Furthermore, many of these workers are stripped from their families and taken far from their places of residence, thus making them more vulnerable and prone to the labour rights abuses taking place. Moreover, these workers receive daily threats, intimidation and coercion towards them and their families to ensure their silence is everlasting. 

 

Choosing between ethics and sales

Alarmingly, Zara is one of many fashion retailers that have neglected the rights of its workers, in exchange for lower production costs and increased sales. As an internationally recognised brand, Zara should not allow such degrading and cruel working conditions for its employees down the supply chain. For this reason, the following suggestions are provided. 

Fast fashion retailers should:

  • Ensure full transparency is incorporated into their labour policies, to ensure that employees are protected throughout the production supply chain and that customers are aware of the production process behind the products they buy. 
  • Publish relevant information on the brand's supply chains, labour policies, human rights due diligence and labour practices.
  • Ensure that human rights due diligence and transparency are incorporated into the retailer's policies, as set out by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 
    • In this light, brands such as Zara should publish what systems their brands have in place to monitor human rights due to diligence policies that are respected throughout all their international supply chains. 
  • Engage in extensive background research on the supply chains companies wish to have contracts with, to make sure that they have the same labour policies and respect workers’ rights. 
  • Make sure that their human rights requirements are easily accessible and comprehensible to all suppliers, therefore, risk assessment and labour investigations must cover all levels of the supply chains.
  • Incorporate robust policies to ensure that all workers under their supply chains are receiving an adequate living wage to ensure that employees are not entrapped by restrictive wages provided in the garment sectors across the world.

 

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