The dark side of textiles: ‘My fingers were bleeding, but they forced me to work’

Nasreen Sheikh and the fight for the world’s 50 million victims of modern-day slavery

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Nasreen Sheikh at Local Women Handicrafts in Nepal when she was 15 years old.imagen cedida

Nasreen Sheikh was nine years old when she fled Rajura, a Nepalese village on the border with India where she was born. “People there often become forced labor victims and the women are just domestic slaves,” she said. She soon fell into the hands of the textile industry and became a 10-year-old child laborer. Sheikh slept, ate and worked in the same room, which she describes as a prison cell, in a clandestine factory in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. She worked 12-15 hours a day with no labor rights. “My fingers were bleeding, but they forced me to work grueling hours for less than two dollars a day,” she said. The rules were simple – no pay unless they finished the entire job. They played loud music to keep workers from falling asleep, and splashed cold water on their faces to wake them up.

Sheikh is one of the most well-known advocates for women’s rights and the battle against forced labor in South Asia. Her experience led her to found Empowerment Collective, an organization striving to eradicate modern-day slavery by empowering marginalized women in Nepal and India. She is also one of the driving forces behind the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign that includes more than 57 organizations around the world demanding living wage legislation throughout the garment, textile and footwear sectors. The campaign wants legislation requiring companies that manufacture and sell products in European Union (EU) member countries to comply with certain requirements in terms of living wages, human rights and sustainability. Their goal is to collect the signatures of one million EU citizens, the minimum required to register the campaign as a European citizens’ initiative calling on the European Commission to propose legislation.

Nasreen Sheikh is a survivor who denounces the high human cost of fast-fashion in the Global North. “All the electrical wires tangled on the factory floor would create sparks that would burn me,” she recalls. These memories have left psychological scars as well as physical ones. “They remind me of where I came from and don’t let me forget the trauma of the slavery I survived,” said Sheikh.

Food was very scarce, and she was always pulling threads from her mouth when she ate. Chemical fumes sometimes stifled her breathing. At the end of the workday, she would collapse on the mountains of clothes she used as a bed. “We were fed like animals and worked like machines.”

Sheikh began to hate every garment she made, but also envied them, knowing that they would end up in another part of the world while she stayed behind. “I later learned that the garments we sewed were washed many times before they reached all the well-known Western stores, erasing our suffering – our blood, sweat and tears – so not a single piece of thread could tell my story.” Her harshest criticism is reserved for the CEOs of the big textile companies, who she says ignore the suffering of girls like her and only think about profits. “We are the invisible, slaves who are living, working and dying in sweatshops, and the same will happen to our children.”

A million signatures for a living wage

Sheikh’s tale of modern-day slavery is not unique. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), nearly 50 million people are victims of this type of exploitation, a toll that has increased in recent years, and 12% of them are children. That is why the campaign for a living wage for garment workers is so important for survivors like Nasreen Sheikh. “The textile industry stole my childhood and is destroying the planet. And no one is talking about it...”

Nadège Seguín, a coordinator for Fashion Revolution Spain, is mobilizing thousands of people in Spain to publicize the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign. “Achieving this legislation in Europe would greatly limit the ability of companies to relocate elsewhere,” said Seguín. She says they also want to raise awareness of the suffering of textile workers. “As consumers, we have to learn to do better. We’d rather blame the industry instead of understanding our own role in all of this. This campaign is an opportunity to demonstrate that we really care about the rights of those who make our clothes, and a signature costs nothing,” she said. Seguín wants this campaign to be a precedent because there is no legislation like it anywhere in the world.

More than 73,000 signatures have been collected so far and the campaign is expected to gain momentum in the months ahead. “We know that some people want this to fail, and their companies have good marketing departments. But we have a lot of citizen involvement,” said Seguín. Working conditions in the textile industry is not the only focus of the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign. Fast fashion has a high environmental impact, and is the second most polluting industry in the world, producing 20% of global wastewater. It takes almost 2,000 gallons (7,500 liters) of water to make one pair of jeans. Seguín says the success of the campaign would benefit everyone, not just workers in the Global South, and could even help smaller manufacturers gain customers that often turn to the big brands.

Fashion Revolution Spain says the initiative has been well received, but acknowledges some obstacles. “Some people think that this will make garments very expensive, but that’s not true,” they say, pointing to Oxfam Australia’s Made in Poverty report, which estimates that companies would have to increase prices by just 1% to provide living wages for workers.

80% of the global textile workforce is female

Such changes would have made a big difference in Nasreen Sheikh’s life. The atrocities and macho violence she suffered drove her to leave home and spend her childhood in a factory. “My family forced my older sister to marry when she was 12, and I felt that I would be next. But seeking freedom meant ending up as a victim of child labor,” she said.

Nasreen Sheikh with workers at Local Women Handicrafts in Nepal.
Nasreen Sheikh with workers at Local Women Handicrafts in Nepal.Imagen cedida

Women constitute 80% of the global textile workforce, and industry studies indicate that gender-based violence is both a cause and a consequence of economic exploitation. This is why Sheikh founded Local Women Handicrafts, a factory and store that helps vulnerable women achieve economic independence while making sustainable products that follow fair trade principles.

Sheikh’s long-awaited fashion revolution could be getting closer. In the meantime, she maintains hope that other women and girls will trade looms for textbooks, as she did. “If I was able to find a way out, then so can 50 million other people with the whole world’s help.” She sees the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign as the beginning of a great global change. “If we succeed, more and more survivors will join. This is important for ensuring that every child has the essentials – food, water, shelter, health, education, a safe environment and access to technology that enables them to avoid becoming victims of modern-day slavery.”

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