On Tuesday night, Zara, the Spanish-based, global clothing giant was implicated in a slave labor scandal, as reported on Brazilian television.

The case was made public during a show called "The League" on the Bandeirantes TV network, and claimed that the company had bought items made by Bolivian and Peruvian immigrants in illegal working conditions.  The reporters, accompanied Labor Ministry personnel, to rescue 15 employees, from the company AHA, who supply to Zara, working in degrading conditions in two clandestine workshops in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Industry expert, Charlie Ross, founder and director of the ethical fashion sourcing and manufacturing agency, Offset Warehouse, said: "Unfortunately, this is something we're seeing time and time again; irresponsible sourcing from large companies who can't or simply don't bother to audit the factories they use, with excuses like, "We hardly had anything made there", or, "We have so many other factories, we don't have time to audit everyone". It is simply totally unacceptable".

The TV report also showed a similar raid conducted in May, which freed 52 workers, mostly Bolivians, in similar conditions in Sao Paulo.  The Bolivians were earning around 1 USD for each dress they sewed, although the retail price in Brazilian stores was approximately 70 USD for the same dress.

All the employees had been recruited in their home countries with promises of a better life in Brazil.  But once in Sao Paulo, they were made to work up to 16-hour days for wages below Brazil's legal minimum (approximately $340 a month).

Unbelievably, these already unlawful wages were subject to further deductions by the employers for the cost of traveling to Brazil and living costs, a clear example of what the Brazilian Labor Ministry constitutes as enslavement to pay off debt.

Inditex, the Spanish group which owns Zara, denied any responsibility.  Instead, they placed the blame with the supplier, AHA, claiming that it had "seriously violated" its ethical code for manufacturers by using workshops that illegally exploited workers.

In responding to the claims made by the Brazilian TV programme, Inditex highlighted that while the combined total of garments made in 2010 through their 50 suppliers in Brazil reached approximately 7 million, these illegal workshops made only 0.03 per cent of that total.

Inditex has now, however, initiated discussions with AHA to arrange compensating the affected workers and have finally committed to using workshops that operate in accordance with the law.  Ross commented, "Although I am delighted to hear that Inditex have now committed to using ethical labor, it is disappointing that it has taken a scandal of this nature to persuade them to behave responsibly".  Major retailers such as Zara have to take the lead if suppliers are to be convinced that their workers have to be afforded basic human rights and decent working conditions.

Brazilian authorities, however, were also unconvinced by Zara's response, and reported Zara clearly marking the retailer among those responsible for the unlawful and unethical activities taking place: "The firm (AHA) works, in practice, as a logistics extension of its main client, Zara Brazil Limited".

Public prosecutor Giuliana Cassiano Orlandi stated, "(Zara) is responsible for those who work for it. These workers were making Zara clothing and followed instructions from that firm".

This has not been the only exposure of slave labor.  Last August, some of the biggest names on the British high street including Marks & Spencer, Gap and Next, were also at the center of a major sweatshop scandal.

Ross further stated, "This is precisely why manufacturing accreditations, like the SA8000 and Fair Trade have been developed, so that if big companies don't have the skills or time to audit, they can use a certification body.  They have no excuses not to be ensuring ethical practices within their manufacturing processes."

Ross' company, Offset Warehouse, serves to tackle just these problems that fashion houses, both big and small, face.  A social enterprise, Offset Warehouse is the first UK online retailer to bring together a wide range of ethical fabrics and resources to make ethical production in fashion and interiors easy.  The online portal provides access to all the information and products needed to be ethical in fashion and design, serving both business-to-business and business-to-consumer needs.

According to Ross, however, the slave-labor crisis and blame runs deeper: "At the end of the day, the fashion houses are responding to customer demand.  If customers will only pay the cheapest prices, regardless of what that means for the working conditions of those producing the goods, then the fashion houses will continue to try to meet that demand by turning a blind eye to sweat shops and slave labor.  A business can't survive, if they have no customers.  And what do customers want?  To spend as little money as possible!"

"In my opinion, the key lies in educating consumers.  As horrifying as these examples of slave labor are, I hope that their exposure helps to open consumers' eyes: the more the everyday person understands where their clothes are coming from, the more they will start asking questions to ensure their clothing is ethically produced.  Then I think they might be more willing to pay that little extra, to ensure the welfare of another human being".

Photo courtesy of Offset Warehouse.

About The Author

Marilyn Moore

Marilyn Moore works for Offset Warehouse, a social enterprise and UK online retailer that brings together the elements needed to create ethical clothing and interiors.