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The human cost of ‘distressed’ jeans

Workers, interviewed for new War on Want research about the denim industry in China, unveil the story behind ‘distressed’ blue jeans.

The research reveals that workers are at high risk of contracting silicosis, a deadly lung disease, while blasting abrasive sand on to denim under high pressure. Employees work in sandblasting units for up to 15 hours a day, with little or no protection. The sandblasting process is fast and cheap, and can increase product value tenfold. Although sandblasting has been banned by major brands, the practice continues behind closed doors, or through subcontracting to less traceable or illegal factories, workers commented.  

Workers in a sandblasting factory
Justin Jin / Panos Pictures

Our report investigates six denim factories in the Chinese province of Guangdong. This region is responsible for half of the world’s entire production of blue jeans. All six workplaces featured in the report are involved in varied non-compliance with health and safety regulations. Labour rights are regularly denied and insecure employment conditions are widespread. Workers toil for long days to earn as little as £116 (1,100 yuan) a month. A supervisor in one of the factories investigated said: “Danger lurks at every stage of the denim treatment processes”. Even where the practice of sandblasting has been discontinued, it has been often been replaced by other techniques, such as hand-sanding or spraying chemicals to ‘distress’ jeans, all with their own unique hazards.

Many workers lack understanding about the high risks of developing silicosis as a result of sandblasting. Factory owners that continue to use sandblasting and are aware of the dangers have apparently decided to compensate workers by paying higher wages, which betrays a shocking disregard for their employees’ lives.

War on Want and campaigners in China are calling for a mandatory ban on sandblasting by all governments. Brands should also commit to the ban, ensuring compliance in practice, as well as pressing for the phasing out of sandblasting in their suppliers’ other productions lines, and assist them in finding safe alternative solutions.

Both governments and brands are responsible for the welfare of workers producing garments with high risk techniques, such as sandblasting. Bans on sandblasting and other fading processes should be mandatory, not voluntary. In addition, brands should take full responsibility to ensure bans are implemented. These multimillion pound firms must also ensure proper compensation is paid to workers living with silicosis and other diseases, contracted in factories supplying their jeans.

Click here for our latest report Breathless for Blue Jeans: Health hazards in China’s denim factories


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