When Artisan Clothing is Anything but “Ethical”

When Artisan Clothing is Anything but “Ethical”

Theoretically, you should be able to buy artisan-made garments confidently knowing that its costs reflect ethical wages for the artisans who make them. In theory, that would happen. Realistically, the obfuscated system of home workers, forced laborers, and exploited artisans make up a hidden labor force that’s nearly impossible to trace or make compliant with ethical practices.

As the Ethical Trade Initiative says, “For many retailers, India is the place to find the skills required to produce the exquisite hand-worked, embellished clothing and accessories that fashion-conscious consumers love. Yet although homeworkers are the backbone of this Indian export industry, the complex and informal supply chains that typify the garment industry mean they are often hard to trace.” This means that there’s no way for us to know who is being paid, if they’re working of their own volition, and what conditions they work in. Artisan does not equate to ethical, and conscientious shoppers shouldn’t fall for this greenwashing campaign. 

Because they’re unregulated, these home workers often work in worse conditions than their traditional factory workers counterparts, even in countries with barbaric labor laws. But who is a home worker and why is it hard to regulate? Not every worker who works from home is a homeworker: according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 177, homework refers to work carried out in one’s home or a premise of their choosing for remuneration which results in a product as specified by the employer. This situation also falls within the United Nations’ broadly defined “home-based work” as a subcontracted or dependent workers, those who work for an employer, intermediary, or subcontractor for a price rate. There are more than 300 million homeworkers in the developing world; a majority of those workers are women and approximately 80% of them are among the poorest families in the world. 

They’re particularly vulnerable to exploitation because there are few laws in place to give them rights (most legal systems don’t recognize homework as an employment status, institutionalizing their hidden nature) and most of them are reliant on homeworking income to survive. They’re often paid less than equivalent factory workers, receive insufficient and irregular work, given little to no benefits, subject to dangerous environments without recourse, and are kept intentionally ignorant to the supply chain in which they work. To make things even sunnier, many homeworkers are children because they’re paid so little they whole family gets involved. Women, the majority of homeworkers, are paid lower than their male counterparts. 

The garment supply chain still relies on slave labor. It’s so well-documented at this point that even people who don’t care about modern slavery have some idea of how it affects global workers. While not every instance of modern slavery comes from the homework chain, it’s clear that those conditions are ideal for discreet use of forced labor. ILO estimates that more than 40.3 million people are in some form of slavery, concentrated in Africa and Asia. 

It’s not just fast fashion, but cheaply and quickly produced goods of all kinds that creates an environment that allows slavery to thrive. While sewing and embroidery are still the most frequent tasks for homeworkers, weaving baskets, making carpets, assembling shoes, or other “artisan” crafts rely on homework to make products quickly and cheaply. These workers are skilled artisans, and the fruits of their labor represent their expertise. Unfortunately, they’re often not paid commensurate with their skill if they are at all.

We can’t expect home work to disappear all at once in the supply chain, but we can start demanding brands to hold their subcontractors to higher standards. Anytime a company upcharges for an artisan good, we need to make sure that money goes to the person actually making them, not just into the CEO’s pocket or to fund extravagant advertising campaigns. 

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