Those blasted jeans makers make a killing out of denim

Fair Trade & Workers Rights, News, Opinion article written on the 03 Apr 2012

To hundreds of thousands of workers manufacturing denim, the term “killer jeans” has quite a different meaning than a great-fitting pair of pants.

Sandblasting is a denim production technique commonly used to give the “worn-out-look” to jeans. It is deadly. Sandblasting is known to cause serious lung diseases such as silicosis, a potentially fatal pulmonary disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust. Sandblasting-induced silicosis has now resulted in more than 100 documented fatalities amongst denim workers. Yet there is no reason for the production of denim fashion to come at the cost of human lives.

This week, Deadly Denim, a new report by the Clean Clothes Campaign investigating seven factories in Bangladesh, revealed that jeans brands including Levi’s, Lee, Diesel, Esprit and Zara, all of whom claim to have banned sandblasting, are still using factories which employ this deadly technique. The investigation finds that manual sandblasting still takes place—often at night, allegedly to avoid detection. 

The Clothes Campaign report finds that brand labels have failed to change their designs or to increase production time to allow suppliers to use safer techniques which tend to be more time-consuming and labour intensive. Some factories have simply outsourced their sandblasted denim orders, keeping this highly dangerous practice out of sight.

In the meantime, workers are often not told that the process is dangerous and only find out once they see their co-workers get sick. Those interviewed for the report suffered from constant coughing and breathing difficulties. They were forced to work up to 12 hours a day in dusty, poorly ventilated rooms, without adequate health and safety protection.

What is most shocking about this situation is that it has been almost a decade since a silicosis epidemic took the lives of 42 Turkish garment workers which led to the discovery of the hazards of sandblasting. There is no excuse for brands and retailers to risk the lives of workers for fashion.

Last year, Oxfam delivered hundreds of letters from Australian consumers calling on the Australian-based Just Group to ban sandblasting and implement a six-step process to ensure the health and safety of the workers who produce for their labels such as Just Jeans, Jay Jays and Portmans. Oxfam has also approached Pacific Brands, who distribute denim products including Diesel, Mooks, Mossimo and Stussy labels. 

Disappointingly, Pacific Brands is yet to publicly ban sandblasting in its supply chain. Moreover, Hard Yakka, owned by Pacific Brands, advertises publicly its “selected styles enzyme washes and sandblasting giving that authentic Vintage look”.

Just Group has agreed to the ban, but they have failed to implement the steps that are necessary to ensure this happens.  As the Deadly Denim report shows, voluntary commitments that are not backed by a transparent implementation process do little to assure consumers that their jeans are not harming the workers who make them. Announced inspections which give factory owners the time to coach workers and clean up any evidence of sandblasting are not an effective way of stopping this practice either.

The only way to weed out this deadly practice is if brands work in cooperation with local trade unions and NGOs to verify that sandblasting is no longer being used.  It is also essential that workers who have been exposed to the deadly effects of silica get regular medical-check ups and receive medical attention whereever necessary.  Denim brands and their manufacturers should also financially compensate any workers who have suffered as a result of their work.

Companies may argue that they have no control over what takes place thousands of kilometres away in their overseas suppliers—but this is not a valid excuse. The United Nations Framework on Business and Human rights has firmly established that businesses have a responsibility to respect the human rights of workers in the factories that make their goods, and protect them against abuses. What is clear is that Australia must do more to ensure that our businesses are meeting international human rights standards.

This means that the Australian Government should investigate violations and ensure that companies such as Just Group and Pacific Brands are held accountable for conditions in overseas factories producing their goods.

The Deadly Denim report rings a clear warning bell — global denim companies must clean up their act and immediately implement a ban on sandblasting. Consumers do not want to wear denim at the cost of workers’ lives.

James Ensor, Director of Policy, Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published on The Punch on 30 March 2012.