Garment Workers Face Mounting Forced Labor Risks

1000+ Interviews Reveal Destructive Brand Practices Contributed to Unpaid Earnings, Threats and Abuse, Skyrocketing Debt, and a Dangerous Lack of PPE

New research by the University of Sheffield and the Worker Rights Consortium finds that declining income and working conditions for workers in garment supply chains amid the Covid-19 pandemic has increased workers’ vulnerability to forced labor. This risk of forced labor has been exacerbated by the pandemic response of leading fashion brands and retailers.

The Unequal Impacts of Covid-19 on Global Garment Supply Chains is a study based on data from 1,140 workers from 302 factories in Ethiopia, Honduras, India, and Myanmar, producing for brands such as Zara and Next.

Across all four countries, workers receiving chronically low wages have experienced sharp declines in earnings and working conditions—including wage theft, verbal and physical abuse, violations of workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively, gender-based and sexual harassment—and have taken on skyrocketing levels of debt to meet their basic needs.

One garment worker from Ethiopia, who has been unable to pay back the money he borrowed and has been subjected to violent treatment from his lender as a result, said “I have decided to leave the industry because the debt has become unbearable. If I stay here, the debt is going to kill me.”

Professor Genevieve LeBaron, from the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield and primary author of this report, said: “Growing indebtedness among garment workers in our study is a result of chronically low wages in brands’ supply chains, compounded by brands’ pandemic response. This is an alarming trend given the well-documented links between debt and vulnerability to forced labor.”

One industry expert interviewed in the study bluntly described the brand response to the pandemic as “a straight-out robbery, a money grab.”

Report co-author and Director of Strategic Research at the Worker Rights Consortium Penelope Kyritsis noted: “The response of many apparel brands at the outset of the pandemic, which included the retroactive cancellation of in-process apparel orders, pushed the economic pain of the pandemic down the supply chain, onto the backs of workers. Our research exposes the enduring impact of brands’ irresponsible behavior. It makes clear the dire need for brands to sign a binding agreement—as urged by over 220 civil society organizations—to respect workers’ basic rights, ensure payment of full regular wages throughout the pandemic, and create a severance guarantee fund.”


On 30 June 2021, a virtual roundtable event will be held to discuss the findings in The Pandemic’s Unequal Impacts on Global Garment Supply Chains. Sign up here:

The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) is an independent labor rights monitoring organization that investigates working conditions in factories around the globe. The WRC’s purpose is to document and combat sweatshop conditions; identify and expose the practices of global brands and retailers that perpetuate labor rights abuses; and protect the rights of workers who make apparel and other products.

The University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics and International Relations is a top-ranked department for the study of politics worldwide. Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield develops and promotes new understanding of contemporary capitalism and the major economic and political challenges arising from it.

Headline statistics from the report:

  • Of the 1019 respondents within our survey who are currently still working:
    • 35 per cent reported verbal abuse
    • 34 per cent reported threats and/or intimidation
    • 22 reported unfair wage deductions or withholdings
    • 19 reported access to things such as water and the toilet as being restricted
    • 39 per cent reported being forced to work in an environment with a lack of PPE and Covid-19 precautions such as social distancing
  • Of those that had their contracts terminated during the pandemic:
    • Nearly 80 per cent did not receive their part or all of their severance
    • Over a third found themselves having to accept new work for lower pay, less job security and more danger
    • 68 per cent of the workers had no contract with their new job

The Toronto Star reported on the study on June 20: