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Hazards issue 113, January-March 2011
Global pressure to drop worn jeans for health’s sake
Would you want to see someone choke and die, just so your jeans could have a fashionably battered look? Hazards editor Rory O’Neill discovers the sandblasting process used by garment firms is ripping to shreds the lungs of the workers churning out billions of pairs each year.

Fashion victims
Hazards issue 113, January-March 2011



It was a simple enough request. Major garment companies and retailers should stop selling sandblasted jeans, because the price paid for worn jeans should not include worn-out lungs. So far, though, most companies have failed to heed the call from unions and workers’ rights campaigners.

At 46, former jeans sandblaster Adulhalim Demir is disabled by silicosis. “All the workers who worked in this profession are sick now. I wished I had known in advance about the dangers. If I had known I would never have done this work.” [more]

It’s not a small problem - about five billion pairs of jeans are produced worldwide each year, and a glance down the High Street shelves tells you a high proportion have been roughed up by a blast of abrasive, crystalline silica.

The process, which is used to give denim a fashionably worn and faded look, causes the often fatal lung disease silicosis in exposed garment workers. Crystalline silica can also cause lung cancer and autoimmune diseases, problems that may only emerge in later life. Sandblasting is a process so hazardous, it was banned in the UK in 1950.

Firing a jet of lung-scarifying dust at denim is not an irreplaceable part of the denim manufacturing process. Worn-out jeans were fashionable throughout the 1990s, with high-end brands like Diesel and Replay leading the trend. But those jeans were silica-free. It was only in the last decade that sandblasting was introduced, as a fast-and-easy – but very dangerous – method of turning out high volumes of worn jeans fast.

Patrick Itschert, general secretary of ITGLWF, the global union federation for unions in the garment sector, convened a meeting on 20 January 2011 of unions and the leading retailers and brands, including Wal-Mart – the world’s largest retail firm - American Eagle, Arcadia Group, Aurora Fashions, C&A, Casino Group, Carrefour, Gap Inc, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), Inditex, Levi Strauss, Otto Group, Primark, Tesco and Vanity Fair Corp.

“In Turkey, the world’s third largest exporter of jeans and the only country so far where the impact of sandblasting on the health of workers has come under scrutiny, 550 former sandblasting workers have been diagnosed with silicosis since 2005 and 46 have so far died of the disease,” Itschert said. “These officially-documented cases are just the tip of the iceberg both in Turkey and globally.”

He added: “Even if brands and retailers adopt rigorous standards regarding sandblasting, there will always be suppliers that do not enforce those standards, thus putting unsuspecting workers at risk. Therefore the best policy is to ban sandblasting altogether in the garment industry.”

The Solidarity Committee of Denim Sandblasting Labourers of Turkey and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), supported by dozens of trade unions and labour rights groups, have played a critical role in the campaign. CCC spokesperson Wyger Wentholt believes their ban sandblasting push has recently “gone viral”. CCC’s global network had originally received a “very lukewarm” response to the ban call, but interest has in recent months escalated.

On 7 September 2010, Levi Strauss and H&M became the first global firms to agree to end sandblasting of denim jeans. A statement from David Love, chief supply chain officer with Levi Strauss, said although the company applied the “strictest standards” to its production, “we recognise that there are factories – often linked to counterfeit operations – that do not apply these same safeguards. And because they don’t rigorously enforce proper health and safety standards for sandblasting, they put unsuspecting workers at risk.”

He added: “This is a serious industry concern. And even though we at Levi Strauss & Co are confident in our practices, we’ve decided that the best way we can help ensure no worker – in any garment factory – faces this risk is to move to end sandblasting. Today, as a sign of our commitment to the health and safety of workers across the apparel industry, Levi Strauss & Co has teamed up with H&M to announce a global ban on sandblasting in all of our product lines, across all of our brands.”

Other companies have since said they will look to phase out sandblasting.

In April 2009, the Turkish government implemented a law prohibiting the procedure, the campaign’s first major coup. As company bans spread, the deadly process could die out.

But not yet. When Turkey banned sandblasting of garments, several companies just moved their production to other countries where legislation was less restrictive, including Egypt, China, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

CCC says major labels including Diesel, Dolce & Gabbana, Replay and others are refusing to even discuss bringing an end to the sandblasting of their products.



DAMAGED JEANS  Billions of pairs of jeans are produced each year. But the label doesn’t say someone had to die to give the denim a fashionable, faded look.


UNPROTECTIVE CLOTHING  A scarf around the mouth doesn’t qualify as adequate respiratory protective equipment when you are working with a dust that can scar your lungs until they fail to function. Survive that, and the dust may still cause lung cancer years later.


DEATH MACHINE  A high pressure blast of a lung-scouring dust is just about the most  efficient way to create a workplace killer. The jet containing crystalline silica is just a breath away from the worker.




Adulhalim Demir: A victim’s story

Adulhalim Demir, 46, left his rural Turkish home in the late 1990s looking for work. “In Istanbul I had no-one I knew, no relatives, no friends. In the places where migrant workers are, they also provide places to sleep, so soon I sought work there. But the migrants are also doing the worst paid and the most dirty and dangerous jobs.”

His first job was for Leke Jeans “initially in another department, but I slept in the sandblasting section. After some time they said that if I wanted to continue using that night shelter, I had to start working as a sandblaster. I worked there for two months.”

In 1998 he worked for a year as a ‘master sandblaster’ in a factory producing garments for US clothing giant Tommy Hilfiger. “I worked there and slept there. I think this must have been the period that made me ill.”

It was only during his military service that he was diagnosed with silicosis. “My illness has progressed to 46 per cent of my lungs. I can’t do physical work, I can’t run or climb. If I catch a cold, it is very dangerous for me. I am short of breath all the time and I can’t talk. It can also cause my illness to progress further. So in those cases I have to go to hospital for a month and get direct oxygen.”

Demir says his former employers used “fake bookkeeping” so he can’t prove to the authorities he worked in the industry. Working in the “informal sector” means he he is denied social security payments. 

“I have three kids, ten, seven and six years old. I find it painful that I can’t work and earn a proper income,” he said.  “I want to dedicate my time to make sure no other workers fall ill because of jeans sandblasting. In my home village [Taslicay, eastern Turkey], over three hundred people in a community of around 2,000 are now ill. Eighty of my relatives are ill.”

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Hazards issue 113
Fashion victims

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Adulhalim Demir: A victim’s story more

Further information

Garment workers’ global union federation ITGLWF

Clean Clothes Campaign

Labour Behind the Label

Jeans da morire/Jeans to die for, Edited by Silvana Cappuccio and Martina Toti, ETUI/Ediesse, December 2010. 13 Euros. ISBN 978-88-230-1547-0.

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