Human Rights Violations: From the Runways of New York Fashion Week to the Fast-Fashion Companies of Today

Henna Shah

Christopher John Rogers, Fe Noel, and Area. Do these names ring a bell? How about Oscar de la Renta, Kate Spade, Cynthia Rowley, or Vera Wang? Last week, designers like these came from around the world to showcase their recent masterpieces on runways across The Big Apple. Welcome to New York Fashion Week!

New York Fashion Week (“NYFW”) is known for its allure, catwalks, and most importantly, clothes. However, in the past decade, the fashion industry has been anything but glamorous. Rather, it has become the center of human rights abuses and allegations.

In 2011, NYFW made the unprecedented decision of canceling a designer’s show.[1] That designer was Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of late Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov. As the former Uzbekistan ambassador to Spain and the United Nations, Karimova’s advocacy for her father’s policies, including those that “imprison[ed] and tortur[ed] political opponents and right activists,” created controversy in the international human rights arena.[2] Specifically, it was Karimov’s policy of “forc[ing] up to two million Uzbek children to leave school for two months each year to pick cotton – a fabric woven throughout Karimova’s designs” that distressed the fashion community.[3] By canceling her show, NYFW publicly denounced the designer and her father’s tyrannical regime, and it became one of the first showcases to advocate for human rights in the fashion industry.

However, as the leaders of high-end fashion made promises to ensure humane garment production, allegations of human rights abuse rampantly emerged in the fast-fashion industry. The term “fast-fashion” refers to the “contemporary fashion trends that change quickly each season”[4] that have “resulted in faster production with lower costs.”[5] Leaders of the fast-fashion movement include companies like Zara[6] and H&M.[7] Although fast-fashion has been able to grow its market presence by presenting more than forty collections annually and selling clothes at low prices to consumers, the massive demand has driven companies to utilize “sweatshop” factory models that violate the International Labour Organization’s (“ILO”) standards.[8] However, due to loopholes in national laws and widespread government compliance deficits, “sweatshop” factories are able to fulfill the demands of fashion’s consumer and capitalistic culture while avoiding legal repercussions.[9]

One of the fundamental labor standards set by the ILO is the basic human right to a living wage.[10] However, for fast-fashion industry workers, wages often do not meet the legal standards.[11] In fact, workers frequently face threats of wage cuts and dismissal from managers demanding overtime.[12] Unfortunately, workers have very few remedies to combat these abuses. In some factories, workers are forced to work in unsafe, cramped spaces and are beaten by managers for failing to meet unrealistically high quotas. For instance, in the infamous 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory incident, workers were trapped and forced to continue production as the building collapsed on them.[13] This tragedy is the deadliest disaster in the fashion industry’s history, as it killed over 1,000 workers and injured about 2,500 more.[14]

Furthermore, the fast-fashion industry perpetuates gender discrimination.[15] Since women constitute the majority of the workforce in the garment industry, they are disproportionally affected by production-related human rights violations.[16] A survey by the German Institute for Human Rights found that fourteen percent of women workers in Bangalore reported previous incidents of sexual harassment or rape.[17] Additionally, sixty percent reported being intimidated or threatened with violence and forty to fifty percent reported experiences of humiliation and verbal abuse.[18]

Likewise, child labor remains a problem within the fashion industry. It is estimated that 16.7 million children in South Asia produce clothing.[19] The dismal working conditions of “sweatshops” have negatively affected these children’s development and health.

Fashion may not be everyone’s forte and we may not all agree with style icon Blair Waldorf when she says, “Fashion is art and culture and history and everything I love combined.”  Nevertheless, as the fashion industry continues to grow, it is paramount that we, as consumers, keep it socially conscious and accountable for its human rights abuses.


[8] The ILO highlighted eight fundamental labor standards: (1) 1948 Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention; (2) 1949 Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention; (3) 1930 Forced Labour Convention; (4) 1957 Abolition of Forced Labour Convention; (5) 1973 Minimum Age Convention; (6) 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention; (7) 1951 Equal Remuneration Convention; and (8) 1985 Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention.

[12] A report found that ninety-four percent of Cambodian factories violated overtime regulations and dismissed workers who refused to work overtime.

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