Sandblasted jeans still causing distress

Wednesday, 10 July 2013
After the technique of sandblasting for denims was banned in 2004 following the discovery of a link to lung disease in workers using the technique to make jeans look worn and ‘distressed’, a new report has found evidence that the method is still used by at least five factories in southern China making jeans for major international brands.

The report “Breathless for blue jeans. Health hazards in China’s denim factories”, commissioned by the labour rights groups Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), the Clean Clothes Campaign, War on Want and the IHLO, the Hong Kong liaison office of the international trade union movement, was released yesterday. It is based on about 170 interviews with Chinese garment workers from six clothing plants in Guangzhou, southern China, the country’s third largest city and hub of denim manufacturers.

Sandblasting is still around

The workers confirmed that they performed the technique of sandblasting on jeans, some produced for major western clothing brands. They had to manually blast the jeans with air guns loaded with abrasive sand (see images) with little or no protective equipment, often working up to 15-hour- shifts and earning between 2000 and 7000 yen (330 and 1140 dollars) a month for sandblasting between 500 and 600 pairs of jeans.

In 2004, a Turkish doctor had found the link between sandblasting and silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling tiny bits of silica, a mineral found in sand and, as one can imagine, amply flying around while sandblasting. As a result, brands like Armani, Levi Strauss, Benetton, Mango, Burberry and even Turkey as a major garment producing country had banned the technique. In 2010, the ‘Killer Jeans’ campaign persuaded 40 other major denim brands to ban sandblasting as well.

Activists are calling for a global ban

However, activists believed that instead of disappearing fully, the technique of sandblasting simply moved to other countries with laxer rules like Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and parts of North Africa. The current report and an earlier one - “Deadly Denim – sandblasting in the Bangladesh garment industry”, commissioned by the Clean Clothes Campaign in 2012, have confirmed that suspicion.

As voluntary bans have proven to be ineffective almost a decade after the danger of the technique of sandblasting was discovered, the report and the organisations involved call for a “mandatory global ban on sandblasting in the garment industry, coupled with full training on all other finishing techniques” (e.g. alternatives like using sandpaper and sanding the jeans by hand or ‘surface activation’, which involves washing the jeans before they are dyed).

Images: Workers sandblasting pairs of jeans / Breathless for blue jeans / SACOM

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