Your ‘Distressed’ Jeans Are Wearing Out Workers’ Lungs

Michelle Chen

In China, manual sandblasting techniques have given an increasing number of workers serious lung and respiratory problems.

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Distressed” jeans are designed to make that wear-and-tear look seem oh-so-effortless, but it can be the result of someone’s body taking a real beating.

According to a recent investigation by the advocacy groups Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want, and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), several manufacturers in Guangdong, China — which supply global brands such as Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler — have used patently unsafe sandblasting techniques on their denim.

Sandblasting usually involves spraying chemicals and mineral dust against textiles to create a weathered look. It is commonly done by hand, using an air gun, though some manufacturers use mechanical sandblasting performed inside special cabinets. Without adequate ventilation and other protections, either technique can expose workers to damaging particles that increase the risk of silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung and respiratory problems.

Researchers found that while safety conditions varied across the different facilities, none of the factories where sandblasting was still reported to be taking place provided sandblasters with adequate safety equipment.” From the report:

Workers were not provided with adequate protective wear (e.g. face masks, eye masks and gloves) when they undertook procedures like hand-sanding, polishing, water-based treatment, and chemical spraying (e.g. potassium permanganate). They received no proper training and were not equipped with enough occupational health and safety knowledge to understand the risk of the materials they use every day.

Some workers reported alarming exposures to potassium permaganate, a lightening chemical linked to skin and respiratory irritation . But, they said, supervisors often dismissed their health concerns, declaring that the chemicals were not harmful in any way.”

On top of the sandblasting hazards, researchers also found that workers reported suffering from fatigue and chronic pain under the strenuous working conditions.

The report indicates that socioeconomic pressures lead struggling migrant garment workers to accept unhealthy conditions as just part of the job. At the Conshing factory, for instance, although they were aware of the health risks associated with their jobs, they were willing to take the risk for the higher salaries that Conshing offered sandblasters.”

Choking on the dust of prosperity

Silicosis is just one of a set of work-induced respiratory diseases, collectively called pneumoconiosis, that have exploded in China over the past two decades of breakneck modernization.” According to a major new analysis by China Labour Bulletin (CLB), there is no clear data on the scale of the epidemic, in large part because Beijing refuses to fully acknowledge it as a rising occupational health crisis. The actual number of cases nationwide could be as high as six million. Fully covering the healthcare costs of pneumoconiosis patients would cost 120 billion to 250 billion yuan (US $19.6 to $40.7 billion), CLB estimates.

Rates are highest among migrant workers (unofficial local residents) who tend to be poor and from rural areas. Since medicines can cost as much as 1000 yuan (US $162) per month, untold numbers of migrants are priced out of treatment.

Though China has taken steps over the past decade to institute a national healthcare system, the programs are notoriously weak. Moreover, the commercialization of medical services and hospitals under China’s capitalist reforms has also dramatically raised Chinese workers’ healthcare costs. This means many struggling workers rarely have the full costs of their treatment met through healthcare programs.

Since the diseases are workplace-related, worker’s comp could theoretically step in to cover that gap. But China’s occupational-disease compensation system is bare-bones and fraught with legal hurdles. Workers must prove an employment relationship, which is a next to impossible” task for many migrant workers, according to CLB, since many lack formal labor contracts. Even when workers’ claims are certified, some bosses simply refuse to pay. With no truly autonomous unions and little legal support, countless garment workers are left basically defenseless.

Yet grassroots worker activism is pushing back against the government’s inaction. Since the mid 2000s, migrant workers have organized protests against employers, some workers’ groups have filed high-profile lawsuits against individual employers, and journalists and political bloggers who have helped publicize their plight. Nonetheless, even in cases when negative publicity pressured employers to agree to compensate workers, researchers found that the money the workers and their families were awarded quickly evaporated due to the exorbitant cost of care combined with the loss of income after victims became too sick to work.

CLB’s report quotes He Bing, a prominent advocate for pneumoconiosis-stricken workers, describing the official response as just a way for the government to take pity on us.” He continues, Honestly, we do not want the government to give us 2,000 yuan (US $326) or whatever. What we really need is for them to protect the rights of people with pneumoconiosis, allow them to have their occupational illness recognized and get compensation.”

Blasting the industry

In the case of the denim workers in Guangdong, SACOM is demanding that the global brands using the sandblasting factories take responsibility. SACOM advocate Pui Kwan Liang tells Working In These Times via email:

The brands are not required by the law to make compensation but since the workers are suppressed by the suppliers in China and the brands are making huge profit every day with the workers’ sacrifices, it is no doubt that the brands are ethically responsible to such issue.

Under pressure from international advocates for garment workers, several apparel brands, including Levi Strauss and H&M, have in recent years announced plans to phase out sandblasting, which has previously been used in factories in Bangladesh and Turkey. But SACOM’s investigations show that in the apparel industry’s twisted supply chains, regardless of whether a brand has banned’ sandblasting or not, the practice continues — to the point that some factories have taken to hiding sandblasting machinery in sealed rooms to avoid detection, while others have simply subcontracted the procedure.”

Meanwhile, the real distress of global capitalism is surfacing all over Guangdong, as workers continue shredding their lungs so Western consumers can wear perfectly abused denim.

To learn more about the online campaign to stop sandblasting in denim manufacturing, go to SACOM’s petition page.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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