Why Versace is putting workers' health before style

The Italian fashion giant is the latest brand to back a drive to end the practice of sandblasting denim

The glamour of Milan's ready-to-wear fashion industry may seem far removed from dangerous Third World sweatshops. But Italy's style capital has become the unlikely focus of a battle to save some of the world's poorest textile workers who campaigners claim have died from a widespread industrial technique used to make clothes for the West.

The fashion giant Versace yesterday announced that it was throwing its weight behind a campaign to end sandblasting – a manual process used to produce trendy worn-look denim – but which campaigners claim destroys workers' lungs.

This month, the firm blocked public access to its Facebook site after a cyber attack by a protest group calling for a boycott of the company's jeans, after claiming that some of its clothes had been produced by sandblasting. The company said it carried out a comprehensive review of its suppliers last year and that none of them carried out sandblasting. But it said yesterday that it had "decided to take a more proactive approach and join other industry leaders to encourage the elimination of sandblasting as an industry practice".

The statement marks a victory for campaigners, with big names such as Levi Strauss, H&M and Karen Millen also having pledged to stop selling sandblasted products. "It would send a really big message out if the influential fashion names in Italy... said they too would stop selling these products," said Laura Carter of the Brussels-based International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation, which is leading calls for a voluntary industry-wide ban.

The technique was outlawed by European authorities in 1966. Britain prohibited the practice in 1950. But the federation alleges that sandblasting has killed dozens of workers in garment-producing countries such as Turkey and Bangladesh, where the process has been carried out manually and has been blamed for the irreversible lung disease silicosis.

It claims that by July last year, 46 Turkish workers had died due to silicosis caused by sandblasting, which became widespread in the past decade as demand for worn denim soared. Turkey banned manual sandblasting in March 2009. However, the Solidarity Committee of Sandblasting Labourers support group says that about 600 workers were diagnosed with silicosis in the country in the past decade and the total number could rise to 5,000 in the next five years.

One of the victims, Yilmaz, 31, has been reduced to relying on state disability benefits and handouts from family and friends after he developed silicosis in Istanbul sweatshops. In a statement given to the federation, he said he sandblasted jeans for several Italian designer brands, between 2002 and 2005. He worked in poorly ventilated 2m-by-2m spaces with little or no protective equipment, for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

They blast denim with a high-powered jet of silica to give jeans a trendy worn look. No one informed him about the health hazards of the work or precautions that need to be taken, he said.

Victims' lungs can become inflamed and filled with fluid, causing severe shortness of breath and low oxygen levels in the blood, according to US government scientists. Sandblasters can develop the acute form of the disease, with symptoms appearing from within a few weeks to four to five years after breathing in the particles, according to campaigners.

Amber McCasland, spokeswoman for clothing giant Levi, said that her company was urging all firms to ban the use of sandblasting for clothes production. "The only solution is an industry-wide ban. It's the only way to guarantee the safety of garment workers everywhere," she said.

Dominique Muller, of the Clean Clothes Campaign, welcomed Versace's new position as "very good news".

"I would, however, ask Versace and all other companies joining the ban on sandblasted denim to be transparent about their supply chains and to explain how they are going to enforce the ban," she said.

Campaigners note that the complex nature of supply chains, and the paucity of workers' rights in poorer countries where production usually occurs, makes it near to impossible to ensure that even minimum safety standards are adhered to. Campaigners are focusing particularly on firms with production links to China and Pakistan.

Experts note, however, that the practice tends to emerge wherever there is cheap labour and a lack of properly enforced legislation to protect workers.

Ms Carter said she hoped several other big clothes companies might be persuaded to ban sandblasted products at a meeting planned for September. In particular she said she was hopeful that denim specialist Diesel might be brought on board. The company has said it will stop selling them next year.

The Clean Clothes Campaign says it has concerns about high-profile Italian brands, which it says have "failed to address the issue or even enter into a dialogue with us".

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