Workers in fashion’s supply chain are reeling from widespread layoffs and incidents of wage theft. One worker employed by a garment factory in Malaysia breaks down the hour-by-hour reality of producing ever more stock for profit-hungry brands.
Robin was studying civil engineering when he was told of an office job opportunity in a factory in Malaysia by a local travel agent. The job description promised an official title and would, for the most part, entail computer work. The problem was the money it would cost to cover the (illegal) recruitment fee as well as travel from Robin’s hometown in Bangladesh to Malaysia—money he would need to pay up front. This would mean a loan of 360,000 taka ($3,400 USD) from his father, who eventually agreed. After all, the opportunity seemed promising, and so Robin set off for his new job.
The reality was a far cry from what had been promised. Upon arriving at the factory, which is enclosed by tall brick walls topped with barbed wire, Robin’s passport was confiscated. He was shown to his work station, which consisted of an iron chair with thin padding, a sturdy work table, a water bottle, a collection of threads, and an electric sewing machine—no computer and no office equipment. And his accommodation, it turned out, was a mattress in a room of around 30 bunk beds.
The working conditions were grueling. “It was very difficult for me [to adjust],” he said. “My supervisor used to scream at me because I was not able to function the machine properly. She used to question [me about working faster], but she never once let me reply, I do not know how to operate this machinery.” Robin is not alone. Moin, who worked at the same garment factory as Robin and who specializes in fasteners, described a similarly tough environment. “Our supervisors are always pressuring, pressuring, pressuring,” he said. “The factory floor is an extremely uncomfortable place to be…[There are all of these pressures] for not much money.”
In a fashion system driven by overconsumption across the Global North and built on the backs of underpaid workers in the Global South, these conditions are unlikely to change anytime soon.
As the world teeters “perilously close” to a global recession according to the World Bank, the fashion market is projected to struggle to deliver growth over the course of 2023—due in part to a contraction in the European market and in part to an overall slowdown in global spending as inflation rates and energy prices soar. And when sales stagnate, it’s typically those at the very start of fashion’s lengthy supply chain who suffer the consequences. Many garment workers were already in a precarious position after the pandemic prompted brands to cancel orders en masse, leaving around $16 billion worth of goods unpaid for, wiping a huge amount of value from the supply chain. The pandemic also caused widespread layoffs across manufacturing hubs as well as increased incidents of wage theft.
Some brands have made promises to improve. But the notion that the fashion industry can regulate its own supply chain should by this point be moot. The private auditing system that supposedly monitors labor abuses has been found to be structurally flawed, prioritizing the protection of brand reputation and earnings over the safety of workers. And laws implemented to improve working conditions are rarely enforced. Some global brands purposely obfuscate their own supply chains by routinely switching between factories or even distance their names from manufacturers through the use of third-party organizations that help them source their stock.
The factory that employs Robin and Moin has produced orders for third-party companies that supply world-famous fashion brands. But as long as the fashion system’s structures of accountability remain murky, allocating responsibility and incriminating the actors at fault is near impossible. These are challenges faced by the media, too. During the early stages of reporting this story, Atmos intended to name the factory that employed Robin and Moin as well as the brands it supplies. But after multiple conversations with lawyers, the risk of retaliation by the factory owner against workers—even those who didn’t contribute to this story—was deemed too high. In order to protect the identities and the safety of the workers who spoke to Atmos as well those of their colleagues, no brands or factories could be named in this article.
However, the reality is that workers like Robin and Moin are a few among many subjected to a system of overproduction, which they describe as having a direct “effect on [their] health [and wellbeing].” What’s worse is that the already fast pace of said system is ramping up.
The trend cycle was once largely driven by the runways of fashion week: luxury houses presented collections every six months, with a handful of styles eventually trickling down to the high street for mass production—and consumption. In the early 1990s, high-street brands like H&M, Zara, and Primark—all of which were founded decades earlier—started taking off. Their ascent was facilitated by their switch to overseas labor, which labor rights groups have routinely described as sweatshops, in manufacturing hubs across the Global South. This move now allows Zara to drop an average of 500 new designs a week for cheap. That’s over 20,000 looks a year.
But that’s no longer enough. The rise of short-form video platforms like TikTok and Instagram have further accelerated the pace at which trends rise and fall—and in turn have shortened the lifespan of clothes. For example, ultra-fast fashion brand SHEIN, which was Google’s most-searched brand in 113 countries in 2022, adds 6,000 products a day to its online platforms. As the transience of the fashion trend intensifies, the working conditions of those who cut, sew, and assemble the clothes worsen. SHEIN was hailed as last year’s most popular brand, but it had previously admitted to labor-rights breaches after reports emerged that its suppliers were forcing employees in factories to work unlawful hours.
Today, workers are expected to produce more for less. And while fast fashion is driving the industry’s accelerating pace of production, other brands are starting to follow suit to keep up with consumer expectations and demand. Below, Robin shares an hour-by-hour breakdown of a day spent working in a garment factory to supply ever more stock to global brands hungry for profit.
6:00 AM I wake up in our hostel, which is located on factory grounds. I share a room with 60 other people, and there are three rooms in total. I get myself out of bed and walk over to the toilets, where I wait in line to use them. There are 15 toilets, but five or six of them are often so dirty they aren’t operational. This means 180 of us are forced to line up to use just eight or nine toilets in the morning. It is very unhygienic.
7:15 AM After we finish our shower, there’s no time to cook and make our own breakfast. So, we have to buy breakfast from the canteen, which is located inside the factory and is owned by the factory manager. The factory canteen food is expensive, even for a piece of bread, a cup of tea, or a banana.
If anything goes wrong in the morning and we are late to the factory to start work—even by a minute—they can deduct between one and two hours from our salary.
Every morning, for six days a week, this ordeal is a headache.
8:00 AM I clock in to start work on my shift. It’s intense: the factory managers pressure us to continue sewing no matter what. Bathroom breaks are not to take longer than five minutes, even though the bathroom is a four-minute walk there and back. If we exceed five minutes, they start yelling at us.
They don’t give us a water break. We aren’t allowed to get up from our chairs to give our backs a break. If we do, we are scolded by our supervisors. I’ve been hit twice on my body, and they regularly call me swear words. For these reasons, most of us don’t bother.
11:00 AM I’ve been sewing bra cups for three hours, and I’m thinking about how much I wish I could drop everything and go back to my country. I want to go back home, but the factory managers keep our passports, and they tell us that we have to pay the remaining costs of our visa fee to the company, which could be up to $700 USD, to get them back if we want to leave.
12:45 PM My whole body is numb, and I’m struggling to move properly. The pain is most intense in my hands, arms, and across my lower back. I can’t even walk properly; I stumble from the pain from sitting the whole morning with no break.
“I’ve been sewing bra cups for three hours, and I’m thinking about how much I wish I could drop everything and go back to my country.”
1:00 PM I start my lunch break, which is 45 minutes long. It takes me a while to get up because my body aches. I can’t afford to eat at the canteen—it’s too expensive—so many of us have cooked the night before. But the factory doesn’t have refrigerators or cool storage facilities for us to keep the food overnight. And as it’s a hot, tropical country, the food sometimes goes bad. There is, unfortunately, nothing we can do about it.
When the auditors come, they typically walk around eating expensive food, which is worth the same as multiple days of our salaries. Meanwhile, our management tells us what to say to the auditors, threatening us if we don’t oblige.
1:45 PM I really don’t want to go back after lunch. All I can think about is going home to Bangladesh.
2:30 PM There is an injury among us on average around once a week. The factory managers haven’t provided us with any safety equipment. All we are given is a mask, but we have no needle guards—nothing. And if we get injured, they’ll take us to the doctor, but they’ll deduct the medical fees from our salary over several months.
I think of this one man whose hand was cut badly in the machine. The total cost of the operation was 3,000 RM ($692 USD). And out of the 3,000 RM, the company paid only 500 RM ($115 USD). So he had to pay 2,500 RM ($577 USD) out of his own pocket, which was deducted in small installments from his monthly salary as there was not adequate insurance.
5:00 PM I am still working on bra tops and underwear. Our rate of pay is measured against a barcode system. Each product has a different production unit time, depending on the complexity of the garment. There are the more intricate products, of which I would have to finish between 20 and 30 an hour. If the product is simpler with a straight stitch, I’d need to produce 200 to 300 items an hour. In the case of cup stitches that require extra time or more technical stitches, the amount I was expected to produce would be less. But there was always a pressure of doing extra, extra, extra, with management shouting, “Why aren’t you working hard enough? Work more! Do more!”
Every day, I get paid between 40 RM ($9 USD) and 70 RM ($15 USD) a day as a salary. But the production pressure is really high. If we don’t perform at those standards, the managers verbally abuse us.
When I arrived here three years ago, our minimum wage was 1,000 RM ($231 USD) per month. It then rose to 1,100 RM ($254 USD), and then it became 1,200 RM ($277 USD). With overtime, I earn somewhere between 1,200 RM ($277 USD) to 1,400 RM ($323 USD) per month. Then they deduct 150 to 200 RM ($35 to $46 USD) from my salary for accommodation, electrical bills, water bills, and insurance. So I am really left with somewhere between 1,100 and 1,300 RM ($254 and $300 USD) every month, depending on overtime.
6:45 PM I finish work. My whole body is stiff, my arms are hurting, and my lower back is aching. When I first arrived at the factory, I used to take painkillers every single day for the first three months.
6:50 PM The factory doesn’t hire any cleaners, so we are made to clean the whole factory after we finish our shifts. That means sweeping our stations, cleaning the floors, and throwing out the trash. Cleaning has become a mandatory part of the workday. It takes about 15 minutes.
7:05 PM After we finish cleaning, I go out to buy groceries. As we don’t have a fridge, I need to buy groceries every day. If we need to store them someplace, we take them to bed with us.
8:00 PM We’ll clean, peel, and cook our food in groups of three or four.
As always, the company never hires cleaners, so the kitchen is unhygienic. Often, people don’t clean up after themselves because all of us are tired by the time we come back to cook. We have had to buy our own stove as the company never provided us with anything. The counters are often wet and smelly, similar to a fish market—that’s the closest comparison I can make. But there is really nothing we can do.
9:00 PM I have a shower, and then I eat my dinner. By the time we finish eating, packing away, and cleaning, it is getting late.
10:30 PM I call my family. We talk about normal things in the house, and I ask for updates from other family members: is anyone getting married? Has anyone given birth? I also ask my father how he is doing and how the business is going. I try to remain strong on the phone to my mother because I don’t want to give her a reason to worry. I tell her that I’m doing fine, I’m okay. I can’t explain the situation to my mother because—well, what would be the point? My father is an old man, my mother is an old woman—they might have heart issues.
11:00 PM I go to our bedroom, which is essentially a dorm. It is divided into three sections by half-built walls. Each section houses at least 60 workers in 30 bunk beds. Every bed is so close to the other it is difficult to sleep properly—also because the beds are full of mosquitos, flies, and bed bugs. Everyone has different routines and different sleeping habits. There are people who are talking with their family because, of course, they need to talk to their family members. They can’t go outside.
The temperatures also make it hard to rest. The fans often don’t work, and the room is a completely closed environment with no windows. The combination of body heat, tropical heat, and summer heat creates havoc. In the night, we go to the well to put some water on our bodies to cool ourselves. But the heat is really bad.
Initially, I suffered from insomnia for much of the time, which in turn gave me headaches. When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re also more likely to cause an accident or have a bad fall—it’s your body giving up.
Editor's Note The diary format in this story was reconstructed on the basis of Robin’s oral accounts of everyday activities in the workplace. It has been edited and condensed for purposes of length and clarity. All names have been altered to protect the identities of those who have spoken out. As for Robin, he worked at the factory for three years before fleeing the factory grounds in late 2022. Forced to leave behind his passport, which had been taken by management on arrival, he climbed over the factory walls one night with just the clothes he was wearing and 1,000 RM ($236 USD) in his pocket. He is now undocumented in Malaysia.
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “On The Clock.”
Nature is an elaborate orchestra of interconnectedness, in which timing is everything.