Chinese factories are using the potentially deadly sandblasting process to manufacture jeans for popular fashion labels, a year-long investigation by Al Jazeera has found.
In the 101 East film Denim Blues, Al Jazeera uncovered evidence of poorly ventilated, dusty and dirty factories at Xintang in China’s Guangdong province, where an estimated 260 million pairs of jeans are produced each year.
The undercover investigation found that some of the factories used sandblasting, a manufacturing process which can lead to a fatal respiratory disease known as silicosis.
Sandblasting involves fine sand being channelled into an air gun and then sprayed at high pressure onto denim in order to make the fabric look worn. It is a fast, cheap and dangerous way to manipulate garments into certain styles.
Al Jazeera found jeans bearing the label of Hollister inside the sandblasting unit at a factory in southern China. In another part of the factory, Al Jazeera found jeans with the labels American Eagle Outfitters and Abercrombie and Fitch, the company that owns the Hollister label.
Workers speak out
Factory managers refused to discuss the process, but workers speaking on the condition of anonymity confirmed the controversial practice continues. One worker told Al Jazeera: “The main problem with sandblasting is the dust. This means you risk getting silicosis if you are not properly protected.”
Some workers say they suffer not only from lung problems but also from allergies caused by dyes and other chemicals used in the making of denim.
Shan, who previously worked at the Tianxiang factory, was so concerned about working conditions there that he filmed secret footage inside the factory. “After smelling the chemicals all day, I had no appetite. I would work on an empty stomach every day,” he says.
Photographs taken by Shan and obtained by Al Jazeera show chemicals haphazardly stored in open containers in a crowded room. Workers with very little, or even no protective gear, spray potassium permanganate, an inorganic chemical compound onto rows of jeans.
Shan told Al Jazeera: “I found it very suffocating when I first went in and started coughing. I found it very hard to breathe. It’s like I was breathing in something strange. The air was not clean.”
Four days after Al Jazeera’s visit to Tianxiang, American Eagle Outfitter’s PR Company informed Al Jazeera that all sandblasting equipment had been removed from the factory, however they refused to comment on when this took place.