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Modern Slavery May be in Your Sneaker Supply Chains, Report Finds

A new benchmark study released by the nonprofit organization, KnowTheChain, has revealed a considerable lack of safeguards in most fashion industry supply chains—rated on a scale of 1 to 100, the 43 companies assessed earned an average score of 37.

As many as 75 million people work in the global clothing, footwear and textile sector. It is an industry that has long relied on quick turnarounds and the pursuit of cheap production, which has, in some cases, created an environment where, without the proper safeguards in place, exploitation and slavery has been able to thrive.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that an estimated 24.9 million people are subject to forced labor around the world and roughly 16 million of those are being exploited by private companies. The production of apparel and textiles—including the production of the raw materials used to create them—has long been a sector prone to this type of exploitation. Even today, much of the workforce employed by fashion companies is composed of marginalized groups.

KnowTheChain conducted its study as a way of determining just how much fashion companies are doing to prevent the use of slavery in their supply chains. Unfortunately, modern slavery takes many different forms and even if an organization claims to support anti-slavery practices, the lack of a well-regulated supply chain can leave it open to the use of forced labor.

The apparel companies that scored well on the benchmark paid close attention to labor practices, and recruitment in particular, right down to the lowest tiers of their supply chains. Adidas scored the highest of any group graded, with a score of 92, thanks to its ongoing commitment to prevent illegal recruiting practices and its treatment of migrant workers. Lululemon came in just behind Adidas with a score of 89. Gap placed third with 75, followed by Primark at 72.

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However, most fashion companies in the study scored lower than that, with only 13 companies out of the entire group breaking a score of 50. This, according to KnowTheChain, could be owed to a widespread indifference toward illegal recruitment practices, which are the conduit through which most modern-day slavery occurs.

On Sunday, for example, hundreds of migrant workers rallied in front of the Taiwanese Ministry of Labor to protest the continued use of illegal “broker fees.” Brokers in Taiwan force workers to pay exorbitant fees—sometimes up to $7,000—in order to be employed in local factories. Often, workers will labor in these factories for months without being paid. Their documentation is typically withheld, as well, trapping them in the country with no means to escape.

In the case of Taiwan, the government has already passed laws preventing brokers from charging exploitive fees. However, a lack of enforcement and negotiation power has essentially rendered those laws useless. Workers are fearful to report recruitment officials using illegal tactics as it would likely mean the end of their employment and, for some migrants, an uncertain pathway back home.

Situations like these highlight the importance of private companies taking forced labor prevention into their own hands.

KnowTheChain reported that footwear retailers and luxury brands, in particular, were woefully unprepared to manage their own supply chains. Skechers recorded one of the lowest scores of any organization in the study, with a score of 7 for its lack of effort around eradicating forced labor, and Foot Locker scored just five points higher at 12 out of 100. Few scored as low as Prada, however, which was awarded a total score of 5—followed closely by LVMH at 14. Only three of the nine luxury brands studied scored over 50 on the scale. Six out of the nine scored lower than 7 in the recruitment category.