Many Western denim brands may have declared sandblasting verboten years ago, but the controversial—and often deadly—denim-distressing technique still occurs covertly behind locked doors. In fact, at least six denim factories in the Chinese province of Guangdong—a region responsible for half of the world’s production of blue jeans—regularly expose their workers to the abrasive silica particles that give jeans a broken-in finish, according to Breathless for Blue Jeans, a new report that the Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want, and the Hong Kong Liaison Office based on interviews from workers in factories that produce jeans for the likes of American Eagle Outfitters, H&M, Hollister, Old Navy, Lee, Levi Strauss, and Wrangler.
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Denim factories typically employ one of two major methods to weather their denim: manual or mechanical sandblasting. Manual sandblasting, which is favored by garment-producing countries in the global South, is performed by workers who use air guns to fire sand at fabric under high pressure, often in the absence of adequate ventilation.
If inhaled, the silica dust can result in fatal diseases such silicosis and lung cancer.
If inhaled, the silica dust can cause severe respiratory problems for workers, even resulting in fatal diseases such silicosis and lung cancer in cases of intense or long-term exposure. “Sometimes sandblasting booths are used, but in many cases the work is done manually,” says Dominique Muller, a Clean Clothes Campaign campaigner who helped author the report. “In addition, other techniques used to distress denim include hand-sanding, stone-washing, and various chemical treatments, all of which involve their own risks.”
The report also uncovered widespread violations in areas such as working hours, excessive overtime, freedom of association, and employee contracts, thus “painting a bleak picture of a garment industry that relies on migrant workers who have little choice but to risk their own health and welfare to earn a meager living manufacturing jeans for mostly large, high-profile brands,” Muller adds.
Campaigners are calling for an explicit and mandatory global ban on sandblasting in the garment industry.
Labor campaigners are calling upon international bodies like the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, and the European Union to enact an explicit and mandatory global ban on sandblasting in the garment industry, together with improved protection for workers involved in all other denim-finishing techniques.
“Only a complete ban on sandblasting will end this deadly practice,” Muller says. “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.”