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Are Your Distressed Jeans Worth a Dead Chinese Worker?

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The apparel industry’s terrible toll upon working-class Asians becomes more apparent everyday:

“Distressed” jeans are designed to make that wear-and-tear look seem oh-so-effortless, but it can be the result of someone’s body taking a real beating.

According to a recent investigation by the advocacy groups Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want, and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), several manufacturers in Guangdong, China—which supply global brands such as Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler—have used patently unsafe sandblasting techniques on their denim.

Sandblasting usually involves spraying chemicals and mineral dust against textiles to create a weathered look. It is commonly done by hand, using an air gun, though some manufacturers use mechanical sandblasting performed inside special cabinets. Without adequate ventilation and other protections, either technique can expose workers to damaging particles that increase the risk of silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung and respiratory problems.

In the case of the denim workers in Guangdong, SACOM is demanding that the global brands using the sandblasting factories take responsibility. SACOM advocate Pui Kwan Liang tells Working In These Times via email:

The brands are not required by the law to make compensation but since the workers are suppressed by the suppliers in China and the brands are making huge profit every day with the workers’ sacrifices, it is no doubt that the brands are ethically responsible to such issue.

Under pressure from international advocates for garment workers, several apparel brands, including Levi Strauss and H&M, have in recent years announced plans to phase out sandblasting, which has previously been used in factories in Bangladesh and Turkey. But SACOM’s investigations show that in the apparel industry’s twisted supply chains, “regardless of whether a brand has ‘banned’ sandblasting or not, the practice continues—to the point that some factories have taken to hiding sandblasting machinery in sealed rooms to avoid detection, while others have simply subcontracted the procedure.”

Meanwhile, the real distress of global capitalism is surfacing all over Guangdong, as workers continue shredding their lungs so Western consumers can wear perfectly abused denim.

But wait, there’s more! Because the capital mobility of the apparel industry, scouring the planet for people and ecosystems to exploit, has also created terrible pollution in Mexico, similar to the purple water of Bangladesh I pointed out yesterday.

That picture is from Tehuacán, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Yep, the distressed jeans industry dumps a tremendous amount of chemicals into local water supplies, poisoning humans and other animals. And then of course there’s Bangladesh. Turkey banned the manufacturing of distressed jeans in that country in 2009, after at least 6 workers died from lung diseases so that apparel corporations could market a cool new look that made them boatloads of money, but the apparel manufactures don’t care if a country bans the practice. They just move to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, wherever they can exploit people and nature with the greatest intensity.

Once again, we need to create environmental and labor law that transcend international borders so that companies, especially in the apparel industry, cannot circle the earth to find the most easily exploitable people. We need a set of labor and environmental law that empowers workers at the point of production to take on the corporations without the threat that their factory will close and move to Cambodia or Vietnam or Indonesia. Without this, industrial democracy and sustainable living on this planet will not take place.

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