The question of forced labour in the fashion industry

Welcome from your Chairs

Dear Delegates,

My name is Charlotte and I am Head Chair of SOCHUM1 (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee) of the General Assembly.

My name is Yasmin, and I am Co-chair of SOCHUM1.

This is our fourth year doing MUN and we are delighted to share our BMUN XIV experience with you all. We believe that MUN is not only a great experience to make new friends and get to know many people from different schools, but it offers the opportunity to develop crucial skills such as public speaking, research, critical thinking, problem solving, diplomacy and many more.

We hope that this briefing paper can give you a short introduction into the issues of our debate and help with writing your clauses. We look forward to meeting you all and having a day of fruitful debate.

Best wishes,

Charlotte and Yasmin

Chairs of SOCHUM 1


Introduction to the Committee

The United Nations was founded in 1945, an international organisation committed to maintaining international peace and security, as well as developing friendly relationships among nations.

The UN General Assembly Third Committee is one of the six committees in the General Assembly, the main deliberative, policy making and representative organ of the UN. SOCHUM focuses on dealing with fundamental human rights in the international community. It promotes and enforces basic freedoms and ideals such as the right to life and protection of children’s rights. Issues relating to social, humanitarian and cultural affairs are tackled by this committee.

Whereas normally the committee will consider draft resolutions, which are then either passed or rejected by member states by a simple majority, this year, delegates will be engaging in clause-by-clause debate on the question of forced labour in the fashion industry.

The question of forced labour in the fashion industry

History of the topic

Forced labour can be defined as any work or service which people are forced to do against their will, under threat of punishment. Almost all practices of slavery contain some element of forced labour.

The practice of forced labour has been present throughout history. Its more recent prominent features have been in totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Under these regimes, people suspected of disobeying the regime were placed into concentration camps where they were forced to work in brutal conditions. For example, in World War Two, the Third Reich were in demand for labour and concentration camps were seen as a solution by Nazi authorities in order to increase supply of labour to keep up production of resources. By the end of 1944 9.5 million men, women, children and prisoners of war had been put in concentration camps, forced to work in farms and factories.

In addition, child labour has been, and still is, widespread in many parts of the world, but especially in Asian developing countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. According to the International Labour Organisation, 11% of the global population of children are engaged in child labour, which is equivalent to 170 million children. This is most commonly seen in the global industry of fast fashion, where supply chains are hugely complex, rendering it difficult for companies to track and control every stage of production. Furthermore, children are considered obedient workers and easy to manage. For those in extreme poverty, children are willing to work cheaply and are lured by recruiters glamorising poor and dangerous working conditions and pay.

Another example might be the Uyghur people in Xinjiang region of north-western China. Leading clothing brands continue to source cotton and yarn produced in these areas through a vast state-sponsored system of detention and forced labour. These factories and prison camps in Xinjiang are believed to be in detention of up to 1.8 million Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people. In March 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report which identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies as allegedly directly or indirectly benefitting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang, these include companies such as Marks & Spencer and Adidas. Companies and prison camps have therefore violated multiple human rights where workers are forced to work long hours in unsafe environments, with no access to healthcare or paid leave.

Subsequently, forced labour is still prominent in our times, where an estimate of 21 million people are victims of forced labour globally. However, significant efforts have been undertaken by member states to combat this issue. International laws on forced labour have existed for more than 90 years. The Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention is a new, legally binding instrument that requires states to take measures to prevent and suppress forced labour, which includes various clauses such as compensation for victims regardless of the legal status of a country.

In order to address forced labour, all member states should take action to respond to this issue, and this puts forward the following considerations for debate.

Considerations for debate

Forced labour is the most common form of modern-day slavery and an extreme form of human exploitation. Given that forced labour is often found in economic sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction and clothing factories, delegates should be mindful of the impact of particular industries.

On an issue where those living in the developed and developing worlds might appear to have diverging interests, delegates should consider how the interplay of the interests of their own country with opposing ones. Forced labour occurs when there is poverty or a lack of sustainable employment and education for the population. Developing countries might oppose or discourage the prevention of forced labour as it provides factories and multi-national companies with a cheap labour force, helping both parties to generate revenue. Developing countries outbid each other with concessions to attract foreign investment, creating the phenomenon of a “race to the bottom”. Producing clothes with the greatest efficiency and lowest cost with a cheap labour force is often ideal for global apparel companies. Child labour and modern slavery cases are still being reported in these factories or the clothing industry down the supply chain. It is suggested that this is the only way for developing countries to stay competitive and be considered by large global companies. This provides jobs and income for the manufacturing sector and the country’s economy. On the other hand, it can be argued that extreme poverty and deep-rooted social issues such as wealth disparity is the cause of forced labour. Exploitation of cheap labour resources offers developing countries and economies such as Bangladesh a chance to move on the first rung of the development ladder and possibility to moving beyond to a more sustained form of wealth creation. Delegates might therefore consider how international regulations with regard to the labour industry can be revisited or updated to better the alignment of incentives.

In cases where workers are not protected by employers and often work unreasonably long-hours, delegates should look to address the health effect of forced labour on workers. Delegates should consider ways of improving working conditions, including accommodation and healthcare access, and making workers more aware of their rights.

Recommendations to delegates

It would be beneficial for delegates to familiarise themselves with existing policies and programmes regarding prevalence and prevention of forced labour, such as actions and efforts undertaken by member states individually as well as by SOCHUM and the International Labour Organisation.

In addition, it is crucial for delegates to have proper and thorough understanding of their country’s position on the matter, as well as extant current frameworks and policies in place which combat or encourage forced labour. For example, clauses can include setting up trade unions for employees and providing better education and employment opportunities for the underprivileged to focus on the foundational causes of forced labour.

Delegates are encouraged to research further into the topic, as not all aspects of forced labour are covered within this brief overview. Delegates are welcome to put forward new ideas and clauses to tackle the issue being debated.

Best of luck!

Further reading & bibliography–en/index.htm