In 2013 1,312 people were killed and 2,500 injured when a garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza disaster made consumers in the global North more aware of the human and environmental costs of fashion consumption, and the fashion industry has never been under more pressure to ensure supply chains are visible and that environmental and human rights are protected.
Although there have been huge steps from many campaign groups to improve the fashion industry, the major high street brands are still rife with greenwashing and exploitation of workers.
Forced labour and modern-day slavery is still one of the biggest problems in the modern-day fashion supply chain, with an estimated 40 million people in some form of forced labour and modern-day slavery.
Women are disproportionately affected by this, with an estimated two thirds of women in the garment industry subject to some form of exploitation. The exploitation of women in the garment industry is also complicit in the increase of child labour, forced marriages, domestic violence and sexual exploitation, as well as being a barrier to education for many women living in poverty.
Nasreen Sheikh is a survivor of modern-day slavery in the garment industry. Born on the border of India and Nepal, Nasreen did not know her own surname, as female births are not recorded in her village. Nasreen watched her sister being forced into marriage at twelve years old, and to avoid the same fate she ran away to Kathmandu where she became a child labourer in a sweatshop. At ten years old she was working in a 10ft x 10ft room for twelve to fifteen hours a day.
“I hated those clothes… woven with the energy of my suffering. At the end of each day, I would collapse onto the large bundles of clothes and daydream about where they would end up and who would wear them. Some of you may be wearing those clothes right now.” Nasreen Sheikh
After two years the sweatshop closed, and Nasreen chose to live on the streets rather than go to another sweatshop. She was fortunate to meet a guardian who helped her learn to read and write, and to understand the basic human rights. She was able to apply for a birth certificate, a process that took 11 years.
At only 16 Nasreen set up a social enterprise, Local Women’s Handicrafts, to help women trapped in the cycle of poverty in Kathmandu. She travelled to Chicago to speak at a women’s leadership conference.
“What struck me most on my visit to Chicago was an experience at a major department store. Rows upon rows of clothes were displayed on racks. As I reached out and touched the fabric, it felt so familiar, like something I had sewn only yesterday. The store felt filled with human suffering, blood and tears. I watched families laughing and enjoying shopping. The children were protected and loved. At that moment I began to realise that my own childhood had been stolen.” Nasreen Sheikh
Nasreen went on to found Empowerment Collective, which invites businesses, governments and media to work towards abolishing forced labour, forced marriage and human trafficking.
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This article was written with the consent of Nasreen Sheikh.