Activists will today demand urgent action from governments and companies to stamp out the continued use of sandblasting and other unsafe finishing processes in the manufacture of denim jeans.

The call comes in a new report into conditions in six denim factories in the Chinese province of Guangdong, a region responsible for half of the world’s entire production of blue jeans.

The report, Breathless for Blue Jeans: Health hazards in China’s denim factories, finds that sandblasting is still widespread in China in order to give jeans a worn or ‘distressed’ look, despite most Western brands banning the practice three years ago because of its link to silicosis, a deadly lung disease that has already caused the deaths of many garment workers.

One worker interviewed said: “In our department, it’s full of jeans and black dust. The temperature on the shop floor is high. It is difficult to breathe. I feel like I’m working in a coal mine.”

The new research, based on interviews with workers in the factories themselves, also revealed that workers are exposed to other dangerous finishing techniques to distress denim, including hand-sanding, polishing, dye application and spraying chemicals such as potassium permanganate, with limited protective gear and inadequate training in the proper use of equipment.

Factory workers are forced to endure these dangerous conditions for up to 15 hours a day in order to make ends meet, with the basic minimum wage often as low as 1,100 yuan (€137, £116) a month.

Campaigners are calling for a mandatory global ban on sandblasting in the garment industry, along with improved protection for workers involved in all other denim finishing techniques.

The report was produced by IHLO, the Hong Kong Liaison Office of the international trade union movement; Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), also based in Hong Kong; the global network Clean Clothes Campaign; and the workers’ rights pressure group War on Want.

Read the full report here: Breathless for Blue Jeans: Health hazards in China’s denim factories

Read executive summary here: Breathless – Executive summary

QUOTES:

Dominique Muller, from Clean Clothes Campaign and author of the report, said: “Only a complete ban on
sandblasting will end this deadly practice. Despite brands’ promises to the contrary, this lethal method continues to be used. It is clear that voluntary bans by brands are not enough to protect workers. Brands have failed to undertake due diligence in ensuring alternative methods are safe and workers protected.”

Liang Pui Kwan, project officer at SACOM, said: “Some of the sandblasters interviewed said that they were willing to take the jobs at the sandblasting unit because the salaries were higher. This, even though they had heard it could cause fatal diseases. It is dreadful that factory owners and brands continue to use sandblasting. Despite being aware of the health risks, they have apparently decided to compensate workers by paying higher wages.”

Laia Blanch, senior programmes officer at War on Want, said: ” It is unacceptable that the deadly use of sandblasting continues, when brands are supposed to have stamped out the practice. Shoppers need to know that their jeans do not come at the expense of workers’ lives, yet even the brands themselves admit they are unable to verify that sandblasting has been discontinued. Now governments must act.”

Monina Wong, IHLO coordinator, said: “While China has passed many occupational health and safety regulations, their implementation is very poor. It takes years for workers to be properly diagnosed, and many die before they even make it to the examination stage. Even if they manage to get diagnosed, it is difficult for workers to prove their employment relationship with the factory, as very few have official contracts. Brands should ensure their suppliers provide diagnosis, treatment and compensation for workers suffering from silicosis or other related diseases.”

NOTES FOR EDITORS

Sandblasting is a method of distressing denim that entails blasting sand under high pressure onto denim fabric to create a worn or ‘faded’ look.

Silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust containing free crystalline silica. It is one of the oldest known occupational diseases, and still leads to thousands of deaths every year worldwide. Previously those most at risk were coal miners and quarry workers, but the intensity of the sandblasting process now means that garment workers are suffering from acute silicosis, which can lead to a rapid death.

In Turkey, where 57 garment workers have so far died from silicosis amid 1,200 registered cases, the government has imposed a ban on the use of sand and silica crystal in the blasting process of denim and other textiles. However, the response of many garment producers has been to move their operations to other countries such as China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and parts of North Africa.

A global campaign for a complete ban on sandblasting was launched in 2010, quickly followed by the announcement of voluntary company bans. However, the new report released today shows that these voluntary bans are failing to protect workers’ safety.

In 2010 leading denim brands joined up to a global ban on sandblasting supported by the ITGLWF: https://www.cleanclothes.org/media-inquiries/press-releases/call-for-an-end-to-jeans-sandblasting
In March 2012 CCC published a report detailing the widespread use of sandblasting in denim producing factories in Bangladesh: https://www.cleanclothes.org/resources/ccc/working-conditions/deadly-denim-sandblasting-in-the-bangladesh-garment-industry