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.
Fashion giant Versace announced it was throwing its weight behind a campaign to end sandblasting, a manual process used to produce worn-look denim, but which campaigners claim destroys 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 none carried out sandblasting. But it said yesterday it had "decided to take a more proactive approach and join other industry leaders to encourage the elimination of sandblasting".
Big names such as Levi Strauss, H&M and Karen Millen have also pledged to stop selling sandblasted products. "It would send a big message 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 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 from silicosis caused by sandblasting. 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 5000 in the next five years.
Victims' lungs can become inflamed and filled with fluid, causing shortness of breath and low oxygen levels in the blood, according to US government scientists. Sandblasters can develop the acute form of the disease. Symptoms appear from within a few weeks to four to five years after breathing in the particles.
Amber McCasland, spokeswoman for clothing giant Levi, said her company was urging all firms to ban the use of sandblasting for clothes production.
Dominique Muller, of the Clean Clothes Campaign, welcomed Versace's new position as "very good news".
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".
- The Independent