SYDNEY - Australian clothing brands are mostly ignorant about where the cotton used in their products comes from, making it more likely child labour has been involved, a study said on Monday.
The Australian Fashion Report, which examined 41 firms that own 128 brands, found companies had made improvements in workers' conditions at factories over the years but little was known about how their raw materials were produced.
"Companies have made a significant amount of progress looking at the final stage of production - about 40 per cent of companies know all or almost all of the suppliers at that stage," said one of the report's authors Gershon Nimbalker.
"But when you get down to the raw materials stage, or where the cotton supply comes in, it drops to as low as seven per cent. So hardly any companies that operate in Australia are doing that, and that's where some of the deepest abuses occur."
Much of the clothing sold by Australian retailers is manufactured overseas, in countries including garment hub Bangladesh, where labour costs are cheaper.
Mr Nimbalker said cotton from Uzbekistan, one of the world's biggest suppliers of the material, had long been linked to child labour yet the country still supplied about 35 per cent of the fabric used in Bangladeshi factories.
The report, conducted by Baptist World Aid Australia, said state-sponsored forced labour and child labour continued "on a massive scale" in the former Soviet republic.
"It requires teachers to close schools for the harvest, and forces children to work up to 70 hours a week for little or no wages under threat of expulsion and abuse," it said.
Mr Nimbalker said while activists had campaigned against the use of Uzbek cotton for years, with retailers in Europe and the US boycotting the nation's material, it was the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh which triggered more interest in ethical production in Australia.
More than 1,120 garment workers died when the nine-storey Rana Plaza complex, where they made clothing for Western retailers including Britain's Primark and Spain's Mango, caved in on April 24.
"What we found is there is so much more consciousness out there amongst Australian consumers wanting to know how their clothes are made and how the workers are treated in making those clothes since that event," Mr Nimbalker said.
The report, which the International Labor Rights Forum advised on, drew upon publicly available information on the brands, company responses and research conducted by groups in the United States to assess the systems firms had in place to protect workers.