Denim workers pay deadly price
Activists will today demand urgent action from governments and companies to stamp out the continued use of sandblasting and other unsafe finishing processes in the manufacture of denim jeans. The call comes in a new report into conditions in six denim factories in the Chinese province of Guangdong, a region responsible for half of the world’s entire production of denim jeans.
The report, Breathless for Blue Jeans: Health hazards in China’s denim factories, finds that sandblasting is still widespread in China in order to give jeans a worn or ‘distressed’ look, despite most Western brands banning the practice three years ago because of its link to silicosis, a deadly lung disease that has already caused the deaths of many garment workers.
One worker interviewed said: “In our department, it’s full of jeans and black dust. The temperature on the shop floor is high. It's difficult to breathe. I feel like I’m working in a coal mine.”
The new research, based on interviews with workers in the factories themselves, also revealed that workers are exposed to other dangerous finishing techniques to distress denim, including hand-sanding, polishing, dye application and spraying chemicals such as potassium permanganate, with limited protective gear and inadequate training in the proper use of equipment.
Factory workers are forced to endure these dangerous conditions for up to 15 hours a day in order to make ends meet, with the basic minimum wage often as low as 1,100 yuan (€137, £116) a month.
Campaigners are calling for a mandatory global ban on sandblasting in the garment industry, along with improved protection for workers involved in all other denim finishing techniques.
Dominique Muller, from Clean Clothes Campaign and author of the report, said: “Only a complete ban on sandblasting will end this deadly practice. Despite brands’ promises to the contrary, this lethal method continues to be used. It is clear that voluntary bans by brands are not enough to protect workers. Brands have failed to undertake due diligence in ensuring alternative methods are safe and workers protected.”
The report was produced by IHLO, the Hong Kong Liaison Office of the international trade union movement; Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), also based in Hong Kong; the global network Clean Clothes Campaign; and the workers’ rights pressure group War on Want.