If you think sweatshops and forced labor are only a problem with bargain basement brands, think again. British fashion house Marks and Spencer and U.S.-based preppy-go-lucky Gap have both been linked to sweatshops and forced labor in India. Turns out high fashion can be based on low wages just as much as the cheaper stuff. Do you know where your favorite fashion brands are made? An investigation from The Observer this week revealed that workers at the Indian factories which produced clothing for Marks and Spencer, the Gap, and Next worked 16-hour days for a fraction of the minimum wage. Some workers were forced to work seven days a week plus overtime, for which they were paid about half of what they were owed. Their union called these conditions "slave labor." In addition to being bad for workers, the abusively long shifts were taking a toll on families of the area — both parents working 16-hour days meant children were often left alone and hungry.
Gap admitted that there had been both overtime and wage violations in some of its Indian factories and said it was working with those factories to correct the problem and the refund the workers who had been underpaid. Marks and Spencer admitted their factories had been operating excessive overtime, and they too are working with factories to end those practices. Marks and Spencer also stated that internal audits of Indian factories had flagged some high-risk conditions.
Just last year Marks and Spencer launched a five-year ethical trading plan they dubbed "Doing the Right Thing," which purported to make ethical production of clothing central to the company's business model. As part of this new policy and since discovering the poor working conditions in one of their Indian factories, they have carried out 11 factory visits in the last couple months alone. They also claim that the factory in question accounted for only 1% of output from India, and the vast majority of their products are ethically produced.
The fact that higher-end companies like Marks and Spencer and the Gap have connections with sweatshops and labor violations goes to show that unfortunately, the price of a garment is not necessarily an indication of the price someone was paid to make it. A $100 shirt and a $20 shirt could both be made under abusive labor conditions. But if a bargain seems too good to be true, it probably is. If the original price of a shirt is $7 and it was shipped from Cambodia, you can subtract the rough cost of raw materials to figure out the person who made it probably wasn't paid that much. Companies like Marks and Spencer at least have the financial room to do what they're doing — making an effort to keep wages and working conditions fair.