Earlier this year a 14-year-old Russian model, Vlada Dzyuba, died due to exhaustion while on a three-month contract to a Chinese modeling company, ESEE Model. She had fallen ill while working on a photo shoot in Yiwu on the 25 October, and after going to the emergency room and being transferred to the intensive care unit, she passed away the morning of the 27th. Her multiple causes of death, indicated on an incomplete hospital form provided by ESEE Model, included sepsis, but this document couldn’t be verified. Zheng Yi, the founder of the modeling company, said that Dzyuba had been working the same amount as the other models, which was normally between two and eight hours a day, and that she only had 16 events which totaled to about 20 days of work. They are denying that she was on a “slave contract” without any parents there to care for her. Her work hours do violate a Russian law stating that underage models can’t work for more than three hours a week, but under Chinese law there are no direct regulations when it comes to modeling.
With two conflicting accounts from the countries, and concerns in Russia about the working conditions in China’s booming fashion industry, we have to ask ourselves, what are the working conditions like in other countries, and what can we do to improve them? Working conditions that not only pertain to models, but to the other key components of the fashion industry as well.
The fashion industry is a multi-billion pound industry with a growing demand for incredibly cheap clothing, that can many times lead to harsh working conditions. In Cambodia the legal working age is 15, but this law isn’t necessarily enforced, so many girls as young as 12 are employed by clothing factories. These girls drop out of school and enter into system that is impossible to escape for incredibly small amounts of money. According to UNICEF and the International Labor Organization, it has been estimated that 170 million children are currently working in the fashion industry all over the world. In Bangladesh back in 2012, a garment factory called Tazreen Fashion caught fire, and without any fire safety laws the company had no smoke alarms or fire exits; 112 seamstresses were engulfed by the fire, while the 11 members of the management were able to get out safely. Shortly after that over 1,100 factory workers died in the Rana Plaza garment factory when the building collapsed. There were no standards of what buildings had to be like in order to be considered safe for employees, and it took these employees dying for Bangladesh to create standards for fire safety. Workers unions are illegal and the people who run these factories are never held accountable for how they treat their workers. Brands such as Walmart and The Gap manufacture their clothes in Bangladesh, as it is incredibly less expensive than manufacturing them in the United States (US). After the incident at the Tazreen Fashion Factory, Walmart issued a statement to The New York Times about how their US operated stores take fire safety very seriously and that they will attempt to give fire education to their factories in Bangladesh.
The key word in that statement was “attempt.”112 women lost their lives in a fire and rather than owning up to the fact that they had demanded mass amounts of clothing from them and failed to educate their workers in fire safety procedures, Walmart’s only focus was on their US stores and maintaining their image. We have to ask ourselves if cheap clothing takes precedent over human lives. Thousands of people’s lives have been taken due to poor working conditions and rather than implementing fire safety laws or building codes, these major clothing companies just care about how cheaply their clothing can be made in order to turn a higher profit.
Along with the poor conditions of two buildings, many workers also have to deal with being exposed to dangerous fibers. According to the United States Department of Labor, employees who work with cotton can be exposed to cotton dust. Cotton dust contains bacteria, fungi, pesticides, and materials than can make someone incredibly ill if breathed in. Many factories overseas do not have any safety regulations or the requirement that employees wear masks that prevents the cotton dust from entering workers lungs. The constant demand for clothing pushes workers to their limits, and if anything happens to the workers than could slow down the means of production, they are fired. According to Human Rights Watch overtime without increased pay is the norm. Pushing these people to stay at the factories all hours of the night in order to meet a deadline for the clothing companies. This forces parents to not be able to go home and see their families, and is robbing these people of their lives.
We live in a world of social justice with so many organizations created to make sure that humans have basic rights, along with proper working conditions and fair pay. We must ask ourselves how many lives must be lost due to improper working conditions, until these major brands will step up and take responsibility for those that they employ.