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Fashion and Mental Health: the Untold Story of Garment Workers

We often talk about the effects of fashion magazines, social media and beauty standards on our mental health. However, what about those working behind the scenes to make our clothes?

There seems to be no way of escaping fashion. Influencers on social media and models on the covers of magazines spread unattainable beauty standards. Actors and celebrities on red carpets flaunting designer outfits, radiating confidence and looking perfect. It is everywhere, on all media platforms, right in our face. And it isn't real. Most of us know that, however, it still affects us. Especially younger, more influenceable people that have unrestricted access to media platforms. This is the side of the fashion and beauty industries that is usually linked to mental health. However there is another more hidden side: the garment industry workers and their mental and physical health.

Countries known for using forced and child labour make most of our clothes, both fash and luxury fashion. This is a well known fact. Many reports of brands such as Primark, Gap, H&M and Victoria Secret using sweatshops have emerged in recent years. Workers face long working hours, dangerous working conditions, forced labour and child labour, and unfair wages. This is detrimental to both their physical and mental health.

A recent example that generated controversy is China forcing Uighurs to work in factories, mainly for the textile and electronic industries. Human rights groups believe that China is detaining over a million Uighurs in "re-education camps", forcing them to work in factories and sterilising women. People who have escaped have reported physical and mental torture. There are many more examples of sweatshops and forced labour worldwide. It even happens in developed countries; The New York Times reported on Fashion Nova sweatshops in Los Angeles.

Exposed to modern-day slavery and at a higher risk of being abused at work, the fashion industry is taking its toll on the workers that make our clothes.

There is no doubt that long hours and abuse at work can be very detrimental to a workers mental health. The extreme circumstances that garment workers face on a daily basis is no different. The long hours and unfair wages mean the workers are separated from their families and struggle to pay for basic needs. The dangerous working conditions can also result in illness, which alongside the stress, is extremely harmful.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. The pandemic brought many supply chains to a standstill, and without any job security or workers rights, many of the people making our clothes lost their job or part of their income. A study done on the impact of the pandemic on supply chain workers revealed many struggled to pay for food, and added to the fear of the virus, means increased stress and anxiety levels to an already stressful working environment. This has also resulted in a huge increase of gender-based violence.

So, are there solutions to this? There are many ways to improve the lives and mental health of garment workers, and charities have set out different initiatives to help achieve this.

First off, would be to ensure garment workers' salaries are fair. Companies maximise profit by using cheaper suppliers. This unfortunately affects the workers. A 2011 study revealed that most consumers would rather pay 15% to 20% extra in order to ensure their clothes are produced in an ethical and sustainable way. On average, if garment worker's salaries doubled, it would cost the consumer only 1.8% more.

Secondly, eradicate child and forced labour, and ensure worker's safety is a priority. Many charities such as Clean Clothes and The Fair Wear Foundation work relentlessly to spread awareness, demand worker's rights and lobby companies and factories. However there is still a long way to go to ensure workers rights and their safety are guaranteed.

As a consumer, there are many things we can do. The best way to help garment workers is to know what you are purchasing and where it has come from. Research companies that treat their workers fairly and ensure their supply chain is free from slavery. It can be difficult and a lot of us cannot afford to purchase huge amounts of ethical and sustainable clothing due to the price tag, but there are many brands that are affordable. It helps to re-evaluate our attitude towards clothing, there is no need to have a huge wardrobe-full of clothes. Alternatively, you can help spread awareness of these issues in the fashion industry. Eventually, fashion brands will listen and start to make change happen.


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