The Dark Side of Fast Fashion: Exposing Labor Exploitation in Southeast Asia

In the world of fast fashion, cheap clothes come at a high human cost. Our investigative piece delves into the dark underbelly of labour exploitation in Southeast Asia's garment factories, exposing the harsh realities faced by workers and the urgent need for industry reform.

The Dark Side of Fast Fashion: Exposing Labor Exploitation in Southeast Asia
Photo by Rio Lecatompessy / Unsplash

In the glittering world of fast fashion, where trendy clothes are churned out at breakneck speeds and sold at rock-bottom prices, there lies a dark underbelly of exploitation and human rights abuses. As consumers in the West fill their wardrobes with the latest styles from brands like Shein, Primark, and H&M, the workers who make these garments in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam pay a heavy price. The fast fashion industry, built on a foundation of cheap labour and disposable clothing, has created a system that perpetuates poverty, endangers workers' lives, and erodes human dignity.

The Harsh Reality of Garment Work

Garment factories in Southeast Asia are notorious for their poor working conditions and meagre wages. Workers, predominantly young women, toil for excessively long hours in cramped, hazardous environments to meet the relentless demands of fast fashion brands. A recent report by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance reveals that garment workers in Indonesia earn a basic monthly wage of just $207. In comparison, those in Vietnam and Cambodia make $182 and $192, respectively.[5] These wages fall far below living wage estimates, trapping workers in a cycle of poverty.

Excessive overtime is rampant, with workers routinely clocking 12 to 16 hours daily to meet unrealistic production targets set by factories and brands.[1][3][5] The physical toll of such long hours, combined with the mental stress of job insecurity and low pay, devastates workers' health and well-being. Many workers suffer from chronic pain, fatigue, and stress-related illnesses, yet they cannot afford to take time off or seek medical care.

Unsafe working conditions are another grim reality. Factory buildings often lack proper fire safety equipment, emergency exits, and ventilation systems, risking workers' lives.[1][2][3] The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 garment workers, stands as a tragic testament to the dangerous conditions that persist in the industry. Despite the outcry following this disaster, many factories operate in structurally unsound buildings, with little regard for workers' safety.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues. As Western brands cancelled orders and demanded discounts, factories passed the financial burden onto workers through layoffs, wage cuts, and forced unpaid leave.[4] Many workers were without income or social protections, struggling to feed their families and pay rent. Those who continued to work faced heightened risks of infection due to inadequate safety measures and crowded factory floors.[5]

Structurally unsound buildings

The garment workforce in Southeast Asia is overwhelmingly female, with women making up 80-90% of workers in some countries.[2] This gender imbalance, combined with the lack of labour rights and representation, leaves women vulnerable to gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination. Reports from countries like Ethiopia, Lesotho, and Madagascar reveal the horrifying practice of male supervisors demanding sexual favours from women workers in exchange for job security or overtime hours.[3]

Women workers also face discrimination in pay and promotions, with men often receiving higher wages and more opportunities for advancement despite performing the same work.[1][2] Pregnancy and motherhood are seen as liabilities, with women facing job loss or demotion when they become pregnant or request maternity leave.[3]

The prevalence of short-term contracts and informal employment arrangements further disadvantages women, who are often the first to be laid off during economic downturns or seasonal lulls.[5] This precarious employment status leaves women with little bargaining power and few avenues for redress when their rights are violated.

Child Labor and Forced Labor

While child labour and forced labour are officially prohibited in most Southeast Asian countries, these practices persist in the shadows of the garment industry. In countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India, children as young as 10 can work in garment factories, often alongside their parents.[1][3] These children are deprived of their right to education and exposed to the same hazardous conditions and long hours as adult workers.

Forced labour, including debt bondage and human trafficking, is also a serious concern. Migrant workers from countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos are particularly vulnerable, as they often incur high recruitment fees and debts that leave them trapped in exploitative situations.[3][5] Some factories confiscate workers' passports or identity documents, preventing them from leaving or seeking help.

The use of forced labour from China's Xinjiang region, where Uyghur Muslims are subjected to mass detention and forced labour, has also come under scrutiny. Brands like Shein and Temu have been accused of sourcing from suppliers that use Uyghur forced labour, raising serious human rights concerns.[1][2][4]

Holding Brands Accountable

While some fast fashion brands have taken steps to improve conditions through supplier codes of conduct and audits, reality tells a different story. Major retailers like Nike, Adidas, H&M, Gap, and Primark have all been linked to labour rights violations in their supply chains, yet meaningful change remains elusive.[1][3][5]

The root of the problem lies in the intense pressure from brands to keep costs low, which incentivizes factories to cut corners on wages and safety. Brands' relentless pursuit of profit fuels a race to the bottom, with suppliers competing to offer the lowest prices at the expense of workers' rights and dignity. The fast fashion business model, predicated on rapid trend cycles and disposable clothing, exacerbates this pressure as brands demand ever-faster turnaround times and lower prices.

Weak labour laws and lax enforcement in many Southeast Asian countries enable these abuses to continue unchecked. Corruption and lack of political will render them toothless even where regulations exist.[1][3][5] The result is a system prioritising cheap clothes over human lives and well-being.

Brands' attempts at self-regulation through voluntary codes of conduct and social audits have proven insufficient. These measures often lack transparency, accountability, and worker participation, allowing abuses to continue undetected.[1][3] Workers who attempt to speak out or organize face retaliation, including dismissal, blacklisting, and even violence.

The Way Forward

Addressing labour exploitation in the fast fashion industry requires a multi-faceted approach. Stronger, enforceable laws are needed to protect workers' rights, ensure safe working conditions, and hold brands accountable for abuses in their supply chains. The proposed EU Due Diligence Directive, which would require companies to identify and address human rights abuses in their operations and value chains, is a step in the right direction.[3]

However, legal measures alone are not enough. Brands must fundamentally change their business models to prioritize fair wages, safe conditions, and worker empowerment over low prices and quick profits. This requires greater transparency, binding commitments to human rights, and a willingness to invest in suppliers that uphold ethical standards. Brands should establish long-term partnerships with suppliers, providing financial incentives and support for improving working conditions and wages.

Worker-driven social responsibility initiatives, such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, offer a promising model for change.[1][3] These initiatives centre workers' voices and experiences, holding brands and suppliers accountable through legally binding agreements and transparent monitoring systems.

Governments in producing and consuming countries have a critical role in enforcing labour laws, strengthening social protections, and creating a level playing field for ethical business practices. This includes cracking down on corruption, investing in labour inspectorates, and promoting freedom of association and collective bargaining rights.

Consumers, too, have a responsibility to demand change. By supporting brands prioritising ethical and sustainable practices, using our voices to call out abuses, and advocating for stronger regulations, we can create a groundswell of pressure for industry transformation.


The fast fashion industry's dirty secret of labour exploitation can no longer be ignored. The cost of our cheap clothes is too high, paid in the suffering and indignity of millions of workers across Southeast Asia. As consumers, we must recognize our complicity in this system and use our power to demand change.

We must push for stronger laws, greater accountability, and a fundamental shift in how our clothes are made. We must demand transparency from brands, support worker-led initiatives, and be willing to pay more for clothes that are made ethically and sustainably.

The women and men who stitch our garments deserve more than poverty wages and daily indignities. They deserve safe workplaces, fair compensation, and the dignity of having their basic human rights respected. They deserve a future free from exploitation and fear, where their labour is valued, and their voices are heard.

It's time for the fashion industry to prioritize people over profits and ensure that the blood, sweat, and tears of exploited workers do not taint the clothes we wear. As consumers, we should use our collective power to hold brands accountable and demand a fashion industry that truly values the lives and well-being of the workers who make our clothes.

The path forward will not be easy, but it is necessary. We must confront the ugly truth behind our fast fashion addiction and commit to building a more just and equitable world. We must stand in solidarity with garment workers across Southeast Asia and fight for their right to live and work with dignity.

Only by shining a light on these abuses, demanding better, and taking action can we hope to transform the fast fashion industry into one that respects human rights and upholds the value of every worker. The time for change is now. Let us seize this moment and work together to create a fashion industry that we can all be proud of - one that empowers workers, protects the environment, and celebrates the true beauty of fashion as a force for good in the world.