Sandblasting jeans to give them a faded look causes potentially fatal health problems for workers. The text above reads "For this we are dying." Image via Taraf.
The sad fate of workers in the denim industry has finally caught the attention of two of the world's top global fashion brands, Levi Strauss & Co. and H&M;. Both announced last week that they would no longer purchase or sell products that have been sandblasted - a process that makes jeans look worn, but wreaks havoc on workers' lungs.In their statements, both companies said they had implemented strict health and safety requirements for sandblasting, but had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to ensure that all their suppliers and subcontractors met the same standards.
Subcontractors' Practices Put Workers at Risk, Firms Say
"We recognize that there are factories -- often linked to counterfeit operations -- that do not apply these same safeguards... [and] put unsuspecting workers at risk," Levi's said in a report on its website last week, according to the Turkish newspaper the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
Echoing the Levi's statement, the Swedish firm H&M; announced that "in order to make certain that no worker producing denim garments for H&M; risks his or her health, we have decided to quit purchasing and retailing sandblasted products."
Workers in Turkey, a major garment manufacturer along with countries such as India and China, expressed pessimism that the decisions would protect them, believing that other companies would continue hiring the negligent subcontractors.
Sandblasting a Profitable Practice
"Although chemicals and lasers are sometimes used, many large companies won't stop sandblasting because chemicals only create a change in the color, whereas sand gives a worn appearance," Abdulhalim Demir, a denim worker who has been battling silicosis since 2007, told the Hürriyet Daily News in a separate article.
"[Sandblasting is] a very profitable job because it adds a value of 50 percent to a product," said Professor Zeki Kılıçaslan, a chest physician at Istanbul University.
A silicosis-afflicted worker with his wife and child. Photo via Sabah.
Between 1,000 and 4,000 Turkish workers have been afflicted with the potentially fatal lung disease silicosis, which is caused by inhaling sand and silica power and crystals used in the processing of textiles. At least 39 have died. When the Turkish Health Ministry prohibited the practice in 2009, many firms simply picked up stakes and made new deals in less-stringent Pakistan, Egypt and Syria.
The fly-by-night nature of many subcontractors has also made it difficult for workers to receive financial assistance or retirement benefits from the government, something workers organized under the Committee for Solidarity with Denim Sandblasting Workers protested in June. The Turkish Labor Ministry has subsequently recommended that sandblasting workers with silicosis be allowed to collect retirement benefits granted to disabled employees even if they do not have any social security.
Workers Breathe Silica Dust Day and Night
According to Kılıçaslan, denim workers sandblast up to 3,000 items of clothing a day, and often remain exposed to the danger while they are asleep because they live in the workshops.
In a short documentary released last year about the issue, titled "Silicosis," workers said they were unaware of the threats the job posed.
"Our employer told us that there is no health risk with this job," one of the workers shown in the film said. "We were working more than 12 hours a day in rooms filled with dust and sand so that we could not even see the jeans we were sanding."
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