Monitoring slave labor in Brazil’s fast-fashion industry

. Dec 11, 2019
fast-fashion slave labor Fast-fashion: clothing factory shut down by labor prosecutors. Photo: EBC

The use of slave labor in the fast-fashion industry has been a recurring object of scrutiny. The 2015 documentary “The True Cost” offers a glimpse into the gruesome working conditions that some factory workers often endure. That same year, British comedian John Oliver aired a segment on his irreverent news magazine show Last Week Tonight questioning why consumers rush to buy stylish dresses for USD 4.95 without ever pondering how clothing could be sold so cheaply.

The “I had no idea” card is often the preferred excuse for looking the other way. Not in Brazil.

</p> <p>Repórter Brasil, a local NGO dedicated to <a href="">fighting slave labor</a>, launched an app back in 2013 that allows you to check which high street brands have used slave workers at some point along their supply chain.</p> <p>The app is called Moda Livre—&#8221;Free Fashion&#8221; in Portuguese—and it monitors the working conditions in factories that are a part of the supply chain of Brazilian fashion brands. Companies are graded based on four categories: their commitment to eradicate slave labor within their chains; the close monitoring of their suppliers; transparency for consumers about what has been done to change the issue; and whether they have a history of using slave labor.</p> <p>While Repórter Brasil performs background checks on companies, it also sends them a list of questions regarding their work policies. The analysis of the answers determines how fashion companies are then rated. There are three possible grades: the best receive a green stamp; the ones which must improve their methods to prevent the use of slave labor in their suppliers get a yellow stamp; while the red stamp is reserved for those companies which fall afoul of one of the NGO&#8217;s evaluation categories, or which that did not reply to Repórter Brasil&#8217;s survey.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <h2>Results are not very positive</h2> <p>According to the NGO&#8217;s results, workers being subjected to degrading conditions is the norm rather than an exception, supported by the fact that only 27 of the 131 surveyed brands received a green stamp. According to Repórter Brasil, some of the country’s biggest retailers, such as Lojas Renner (368 stores nationwide) and Lojas Marisa (355 stores) have issues to address, denoted by their yellow stamps.&nbsp;</p> <p>Colcci—a brand represented by Brazil’s iconic supermodel Gisele Bündchen—received a red one, due to lack of information about its policies, monitoring, and transparency, though there is no record of professionals working in conditions analogous to slavery at the brand’s service.</p> <p>The explanation behind the Brazilian brands with poor ratings lies in the fact that cost-cutting solutions are often found by employing workers from Brazil&#8217;s Northeast, the poorest region in the country. But major cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are also guilty of slave labor—and the workers there are mostly undocumented migrants. In 2011, prosecutors from the state of São Paulo raided a factory where 16 <a href="">Bolivians</a> were kept in <a href="">degrading conditions</a>. </p> <p>They worked for one of Zara’s suppliers and were paid roughly USD 0.50 for every item of clothing made. The Spanish brand had to pay a USD 96,000-fine. Zara’s turnover reaches almost USD 6 billion worldwide.</p> <p>If acknowledging the problem is the first step towards finding a solution, then we could say that Brazil is on the right path. It was one of the first nations to admit to the <a href="">International Labor Organization</a>, back in 1995, that slave labor does indeed occur within its borders. Since then, 53,000 workers have been rescued from slave-like conditions.</p> <p>“We still have a long way to go, but it would be unfair to ask the consumer to be conscious if he or she doesn’t know any better. That’s why it is important to have information out there, to have the means to monitor what you buy,” explained Leonardo Sakamoto, president of Repórter Brasil, back in 2016.</p> <p>Promising signs were seen earlier this decade, as the number of workers needing rescue dropped year on year until reaching only 647 in 2017. Hopes that modern slavery was becoming less common were premature, however, as the number of workers found in these conditions tripled in 2018.</p> <p>While oversight and inspection efforts must continue, at least consumers can no longer plead ignorance.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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