“Sewing” Justice: A Theological Response to Garment Worker Exploitation

Written by Céire Kealty
Céire Kealty is a PhD candidate in Theology at Villanova University and freelance writer, exploring Christian spirituality, environmental ethics, and the global garment industry.
Restless Distractions

In his work Confessions, St. Augustine identifies a deep restlessness in every human heart. He insists that this restlessness finds its release in God;[1] advertisers insist that shopping is an effective alternative.

Consumers take their anxieties, sorrows, and boredom to the store—and shopping delivers them from emotional turmoil, if only for a moment. The term “retail therapy,” what North American theologian Michele Saracino calls the experiences of “feeling better about life” after shopping, holds weight in Western society.[2] A particularly bad day might warrant a quick look around in Penney’s, or a purchase (or several) online—and so can a good day. Consumers turn to shopping, reflexively, to bond with friends, spend time with family, and entertain themselves.[3] Bustling shopping centres and city streets across the country reflect this trend.

If shopping is a social activity, what social consequences might it hold for us? At first glance, we might easily identify the social pressures knit into our purchasing practices. For younger people, the pressure to keep up with trends across Europe and North America is palpable. It is heightened through social media and advertising campaigns that create ideas of inclusion and belonging. Keeping up with new products and the rapidly evolving consumer landscape proves demanding, but necessary, as the things we buy hold social currency. Here, constant consumption becomes a social norm, with constant sale events and other advertisements reinforcing this norm.

With this norm comes certain social expectations. We expect to update our wardrobes frequently, and we expect these updates to cost as little as possible. With apparel stores like SHEIN flooding the region with super-low prices, coupled with the reign of Penney’s and Primark, we become accustomed to garments costing as little as a fiver. These prices are welcome, especially as costs of living—such as housing—rise. Yet these prices are sustained at great cost to industry workers, who are easily hidden from consumers’ view.  In the frenzy to consume, what do we fail to see?


[Garment] Worker Exploitation, Close to Home

Worker exploitation is a specter haunting numerous industries, including those in the global garment supply chain. Garment workers endure undignified working conditions—cramped workstations, exposure to pollutants, vermin, and disease—and are paid a pittance for their risky labour. Staring down monstrous quotas from demanding corporations, workers face further abuse from supervisors who are desperate to maintain favor with brands. In the desperation to complete orders, workers often undertake unpaid overtime and work 12-to-14 hour shifts.

Such circumstances are an open secret in our global society. We’ve heard of child labour in chocolate manufacturing, of suicidal Foxconn workers clamoring to make our iPhones, and now, exhausted workers stitching our favorite garments together. Consumers are easily sympathetic to workers’ plight, but the complex scope of the industry—spread across various countries and transnational networks—makes it easier to disengage, as industry problems prove overwhelming to the average individual. Consumers may also be placated by the belief that these injustices occur at great distances, out of reach, too far removed from the act of purchasing, and thus of little consequence to them. Yet these injustices are not too far afield—we need only turn to the neighboring U.K. to encounter these conditions.

Leicester is a city known for its garment production—and for its poor working conditions. As the main domestic hub for apparel production, Leicester’s factories have faced media scrutiny in the past decade. Since 2017, reporters have uncovered rampant worker exploitation throughout the city’s garment factories.[4] In 2018, the Financial Times published a report documenting numerous instances of wage injustice, finding that some garment workers earned as little as £3.50 an hour—less than half the U.K.’s minimum wage.[5] Working conditions have worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Workers have been denied sick pay and leave amidst exploitative wages. Workers also noted a lack of mitigation measures within the factory, and coronavirus outbreaks were reportedly linked to these work places.[6]

This past October, 500 garment workers gathered in Leicester alongside trade unionists and other concerned citizens to protest these and other injustices in the city’s apparel factories—the same factories where brands like New Look, Boohoo, and Missguided source products. This assembly was the first time that workers had rallied to publicly protest their situation.[7] Despite media pushback against exploitative conditions in the factory and by brands, workers continue to suffer. When brands have produced apology statements or pledge commitments to a “fairer industry,” they have later heightened their exploitative behaviors. In a current instance, sourcing brands have demanded price reductions on completed orders, straining Leicester’s garment industry and worsening conditions for garment workers. When we hear of injustice that occurs just out of reach, we tune out—but Leicester is a stone’s throw from Dublin. If such injustice happens in Leicester, it can happen in Limerick.

In Ireland, momentum is building around sustainability and ethical labour practices— for instance, the Labour Exploitation and Trafficking (Audit of Supply Chains) Bill, Ireland’s first legislation on regulating corporate activity related to labour exploitation and trafficking, is making its way through the Dáil Éirrean for the second time.[8] Yet, simultaneously, the country is embracing questionable corporate investment. This past year, politicians welcomed the fast-fashion mega-giant SHEIN, who are establishing their Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) headquarters in Dublin City Centre.[9] SHEIN’s reputation for worker exploitation and environmental harms within its supply chain is eclipsed by its shockingly low prices, which maintain consumer interest and popularity. Since 2022, the company has held successful pop-up shops from Cork to Dublin. They are enthusiastically embraced by consumers. And while some have been outspoken in their concerns about the mega-corporation’s presence in the Republic, the promise of pretty clothes for dirt cheap wins out.[10]

A truthful reckoning with the injustice that is worker exploitation, within and beyond the apparel supply chain, in a way that produces meaningful outcomes, is well overdue. What might compel consumers and policymakers alike to attend to these harms? The Catholic social tradition appeals to these pressing concerns, and makes a strong case for our communal involvement. I explore these insights below.


Insights from the Catholic Theological Tradition

What can the Catholic theological tradition tell us about worker injustice and workers’ rights? The tradition boasts a lengthy history of labour-adjacent insights. Since Pope Leo XII promulgated Rerum Novarum (1891) – a papal encyclical responding to the changing labour conditions of the Industrial Revolution – the theological tradition has grown to consider the rights and dignity owed to the world’s workers amidst economic growth, technological advancements, and globalised markets. Ninety years after Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II published Laborem Exercens (1981), or “Through Work”, to address the labour landscape of the twentieth century. His work is worth revisiting here, not only for its pragmatic support for decent working conditions, but also for its emphasis on human dignity.

John Paul II reminds that before a person is a labourer, s/he is a human being who, by virtue of being human, has dignity. The Christian tradition holds that each person is created in the image and likeness of God (the imago Dei), reflecting the inviolable dignity of humanity. Northern Irish legal theorist Christopher McCrudden summarizes this formula aptly: “Value the human person for she is human.”[11] Human dignity is a central principle within Catholic social teaching.

Turning to the Gospels, John Paul II contends that we find a striking connection between human dignity and human labour. He notes that the Gospels depict a God who became like humanity in all ways, specifically by labouring: “the one who, while being God…devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench.”[12] This “Gospel of work” illustrates how, by channeling Christ’s labour on earth, our own labouring holds the possibility to enrich human dignity.

John Paul II asserts that work is a good—perhaps not always enjoyable, perhaps slightly inconvenient at times, perhaps requiring us to exert our bodies and minds, but good nonetheless— because it is a worthy undertaking. Work, for the Pope, is “something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it.”[13] He further claims that work proves its goodness by enabling the labourer to achieve fulfillment as a human being, and thus “in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being.’”[14] Work enables us to transform God’s creation and creatures into new creations, ideas, and possibilities. At its best, it enables us to grow in self-understanding and thus, in dignity. So, if we follow John Paul II’s logic and recognise the linkage between work and personal dignity, then working conditions that threaten one’s dignity prompt ethical, spiritual, and even existential concerns.

John Paul II acknowledges, as Pope Leo XIII did, that work has two conditions: it is personal (reflected in how work allows for self-growth), and it is necessary. Work is what enables the person to “preserve his life” through wages.[15] The necessity of work is recognised by workers as well as employers, who use this vulnerability to impose unjust conditions and cut costs. Yet though every person is called to work, “work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work.’”[16] John Paul II insists that “In work, whereby matter gains in nobility, man himself should not experience a lowering of his own dignity.”[17] We can think of many such cases where consumable goods have “gained in nobility” at great expense to the labourers who produce them. In the case of fast fashion, cheap clothes are prioritized over garment workers’ dignity. Little thought is given to their fulfillment, nor their health or safety.

John Paul II’s  insights also awaken us to the relationships we have forged through our clothes, and other products, allowing us to recognise our own participation in these injustices as consumers. Though distance may hide the faces of each garment worker, we wear the fruits of their labour, clothing, on our bodies. Traces of their handiwork are found in our bursting closets and stuffed homes. North American theologian Daniel K. Finn asserts, “When I bought the shirt that I am currently wearing, I entered into a preexisting relationship…I am indeed in relationship with the…woman who sewed the stitches into my shirt.”[18] Distance does not erase our involvement in structures of sin; it only obscures it. Averting our eyes from instances of worker exploitation betrays our human neighbours who bear the image of God. Here, in action and commitment our society absconds the New Commandment: to love our (labouring) neighbour.


Policy and Prescriptions for Dignified Work

To honor the dignity owed to workers, the Catholic social tradition delineates other concepts and principles that secure this reality. These insights can guide consumer—and policy—responses to worker injustice, in the garment industry and beyond.


Just Wage

The Catholic tradition holds that workers be granted a just wage. This just wage should foster the worker’s self-development, through adequate pay and time. The just wage stands in sharp contrast to the poor pay, wage theft, and forced overtime that define the working conditions in the apparel sector. Above all, a just wage should support the individual worker and their family—it should be generative, not exploitative.[19]

Though laws and business audits serve as methods of minimum wage enforcement, wage theft and exploitation still occur throughout the industry. In the cases in Leicester, brands have demanded discounts on previous orders. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, brands behaved similarly, and withheld worker pay en-masse for completed orders, to the tune of $40 billion USD. Such behavior was enabled through force majeur clauses, which allowed brands to thwart moral responsibility to their supplying factories, for economic benefit.

Just wage is a heartening concept, but without enforcement mechanisms, it is dead in the water. Here, we are presented with an opportunity to turn to our labouring neighbours, and join them in solidarity—a force that has, and continues to, sow justice.



In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis acknowledges the cultures of indifference that permeates our world—and offers solidarity as an antidote.[20]

The principle of solidarity calls us to first face those suffering labourers, who are, despite distance, our neighbours, and eschew indifference. Solidarity starts with acknowledging their plight, and “comes to fulfillment only when I willingly place my life at the service of others.”[21] Francis writes that solidarity “finds concrete expression in service,” whereby individuals learn to “set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, before the concrete gaze of those who are most vulnerable.”[22] Solidarity must be more than committing a few good acts, and must not devolve into a charity side-project. Rather, it should prompt us to combat structural injustices, with worker voices at the forefront.

In 2020, consumers, journalists, and garment worker organisations pursued solidaristic action in response to the rampant industry wage theft. These groups joined together under the auspices of the #PayUp Campaign, and through protest campaigns, poor press, and communal efforts, secured over $15 billion USD of owed wages for garment workers in South Asia.[23] Here, solidarity cut through corporate loopholes and held brands accountable for exploitation, while preserving workers’ agency.


Conclusion: Policy Promises and Consumer Practices

What can garment worker solidarity look like for consumers and policymakers?

At present, momentum continues to build around just practices and policies in the garment supply chain. Binding agreements like the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and its sibling, the Pakistan Accord, hold promise to protect South Asian garment workers (though brands must be pressured to sign them).

Looking to Europe, Germany’s supply chain due diligence act (Lieferkettengesetz)[24] has, since its enactment this January, created regular oversight and enforcement for German businesses, requiring them to reckon with any affronts to human rights in their supply chains.[25] Germany’s bill can inspire EU-wide legislation, addressing concerns within and beyond the garment industry.

Organisations like Fashion Revolution, Labour Behind the Label, Clean Clothes Campaign, Fair Wear Foundation, and No Sweat UK provide avenues for advocacy and policy collaboration for consumers, union-adjacent professionals, and policymakers.[26] Local organisations like Fashion Revolution Ireland and IWW Ireland attend to labour initiatives in the country as well.[27]

Above all, when reckoning with worker exploitation we must think of the local and the global, and the responsibilities interwoven in the labor relationships forged across many kilometres. The Catholic social tradition offers us a framework through which we can assess these and other injustices. Our labouring neighbours in Leicester offer us the opportunity to join in support and fulfill the New Commandment. Will we answer this call?


[1] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1, 1.5.
[2] Michele Saracino, Clothing, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012) p. 78.
[3] Michelle A. Gonzalez, Shopping: Christian Explorations of Daily Living (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), p. 14.
[4] See Channel 4, “Undercover: Britain’s Cheap Clothes: Channel 4 Dispatches,” 23 January 2017. Web. https://www.channel4.com/press/news/undercover-britains-cheap-clothes-channel-4-dispatches
[5] Sarah O’Connor, “Dark factories: labour exploitation in Britain’s garment industry.” Financial Times.  17 May 2018. Web. https://www.ft.com/content/e427327e-5892-11e8-b8b2-d6ceb45fa9d0
[6] See Emma Elizabeth Davidson, “A new report claims Boohoo could be behind Leicester’s coronavirus surge.” DAZED Digital. 1 July 2020. Web. https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/49690/1/new-report-fast-fashion-boohoo-leicester-garment-factories-coronavirus-rise  
[7] See “PRESS RELEASE: LEICESTER GARMENT WORKERS RALLIED IN FIGHT FOR DECENT JOBS.” Labour Behind the Label. 1 October 2023. Web. https://labourbehindthelabel.org/press-release-leicester-garment-workers-rallied-in-fight-for-decent-jobs/
[8] See “Labour Exploitation and Trafficking (Audit of Supply Chains) Bill 2021, House of the Oireachtas, https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/bills/bill/2021/45/. See also “Dáil Éirrean debate- Thursday, 28 Sep 2023 Vol. 1043 No. !” for current proceedings. https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2023-09-28/43/
[9] See “SHEIN Launches EMEA Headquarters in Dublin City.” IDA Ireland. 11 May 2023. Web. https://www.idaireland.com/latest-news/press-release/shein-launches-emea-headquarters-in-dublin-city/
[10] See, for instance, Amy Donohoe, “’Why I decided against visiting SHEIN’s pop-up shop in Dublin,” Irish Independent, 7 November 2022, Web. https://www.independent.ie/regionals/dublin/dublin-news/why-i-decided-against-visiting-sheins-pop-up-shop-in-dublin/42124753.html. See also Amy Donohoe, “’SHEIN pop-up store in Dublin should not be celebrated,’ Irish Independent, 20 October 2022. Web. https://www.independent.ie/regionals/dublin/dublin-news/shein-pop-up-store-in-dublin-should-not-be-celebrated/42082735.html
[11] See Christopher McCrudden, “In Pursuit of Human Dignity: An Introduction to Current Debates,” in C. McCrudden, ed., Understanding Human Dignity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 15-23.
[12] Pope John Paul II, L.E., §6 (emphasis original).
[13] John Paul II, L.E., 9. He also writes that “life is built up every day from work, from work it [human existence] derives its specific dignity…” See LE, §1.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Pope Leo XIII, R.N., §34.
[16] John Paul II, L.E., §6.
[17] Cf. Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo AnnoAAS 23 (1931), pp. 221-222. Cited in Ibid.
[18] Daniel K. Finn, “Social Causality and Market Complicity,” in Distant Markets, Distant Harms: Economic Complicity and Christian Ethics, edited by Daniel K. Finn, (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 256-7.
[19] In his 1912 work A Living Wage, American priest-economist John A. Ryan wrote convincingly of a just wage as a “living wage.” Ryan insists that “The laborer has a right to a family Living wage because this is the only way in which he can exercise his right to the means of maintaining a family, and he has a right to these means because they are an essential condition of normal life.” Ryan, A Living Wage (London: Macmillan, 1912), 43.
[20] Clemens Sedmak, Enacting Catholic Social Tradition, 49.
[21] Benedict XVI, Address to the participants in the 14th session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Vatican website, May 3, 2008, https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/may/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080503_social-sciences.html.
[22] Francis, Fratelli Tutti, “On Fraternity and Social Friendship” (2020), §115. Cited in Sedmak, 49.
[23] Brooke Bobb, “This Hashtag Unlocked $15 billion of lost wages due to cancelled orders from Gap, Levi’s, and other brands.” VOGUE. 10 July 2020. Web. https://www.vogue.com/article/remake-payup-campaign-social-media-garment-workers-wages-gap
[24] https://lieferkettengesetz.de/en/
[25] See “German supply chain law comes into force.” European Coalition for Corporate Justice. 10 January 2023. Web. https://corporatejustice.org/news/german-supply-chain-act-comes-into-force/
[26] These organisations can be found online at the following links: Fashion Revolution (https://www.fashionrevolution.org/), Labour Behind the Label (https://labourbehindthelabel.org/), Clean Clothes Campaign (https://cleanclothes.org/), Fair Wear Foundation (https://www.fairwear.org/), and No Sweat UK (https://nosweat.org.uk/campaigns/).
[27] These organisations can be found online at the following links: Fashion Revolution Ireland (https://www.fashionrevolution.org/europe/ireland/), and IWW Ireland (https://www.onebigunion.ie/).