Exploitation in the Fashion Industry: An issue from Leicester to Phnom Penh

Image: Rex

Home Secretary Priti Patel has claimed to be ‘appalled’ by the illegal wages and working conditions of a garment factory in Leicester, a story that was front page news of this weekend’s UK papers. The factory, which is under investigation for unsafe working conditions and poverty wages, produces clothing for brands including Boohoo and Nasty Gal and has paid wages as low as £3.50 an hour. Although shocking, these findings are not new. Leicester is responsible for around a third of the UK’s fashion manufacturing and has been subject to claims of unsafe conditions including blocked fire exits, unsafe conditions and illegal wages for years – recently coming under additional fire for an almost complete lack of PPE for the workers who continued to produce clothing through the UK’s lockdown. When Vogue Magazine spoke to Debbie Coulter, Head of Programmes at the Ethical Trading Initiative back in 2017, she stated that workers were housed in units that “frankly you’d be fearful of entering – lack of fire safety equipment, fire safety risks, building safety risks.”

These findings are clearly abhorrent, but it does beg the question, if the Home Secretary is so appalled at these conditions in the UK, then why aren’t the Government acting with the same force on those brands working transnationally?

Fashion brands outsource their manufacturing to source globally cheap labour, production is moved to wherever the labour is cheapest. Poorer countries compete against each other for the investment of garment production, selling the labour of the most vulnerable in their society for a price at which they cannot sustain decent lives. Workers’ rights and wages are squeezed to ensure the highest profits for retailers. This is a globally sanctioned system of exploitation that we know is happening yet continue to facilitate. Why are these conditions and wages unacceptable in Leicester, but an unfortunate bi-product of capitalism in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia or Indonesia? It cannot be one rule for ‘us’ and another rule for ‘them’. Fundamental human rights are the same for all humans and need to be upheld across the board with the same rigour.

Across this industry, almost 80% of the workforce are women. The majority of which, are not earning a Living Wage. In addition, these women are subject to harassment within the workplace and unsafe conditions – the extremity of which can be demonstrated in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013, that resulted in the deaths of 1,134 people. In Vogue’s 2017 exposé of factories in Leicester, they identified that a large proportion of workers being exploited were women who had come to the UK speaking little English. Many “come to UK on a six-month visa and work every hour they can before returning home” and brands exploit their urgency to earn and expectations of the worth of their labour to ensure vast profits on cheaply produced clothing.

Image: NGWF

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign’s report False Promises: Migrant Workers in the Global Garment Industry “the lack of legal protection is at the root of much of the exploitation faced by migrant workers.” These workers are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of workplace exploitation and The Circle has recently made emergency grants to garment workers in Bangladesh who had been abandoned by retailers who cancelled orders and refused to pay wages; many of whom were migrant workers who were excluded from even the most limited government aid during the Covid-19 crisis. In the UK too, the Government have come under intense scrutiny for the exclusion of migrant women from services and protections offered by the Domestic Abuse Bill that will be discussed today. Allowing systems that exploit the most marginalised members of society, whether that is in the UK or abroad, erodes the standards of basic human rights.

Debbie Coulter warned that multinational fashion companies “act with such impunity it is quite frightening” and we have seen during the Covid-19 crisis that brands have not upheld the rights of their workers, have refused to honour their contracts with suppliers, and yet seem to have emerged unscathed. The fashion industry cannot be a special case and now, more than ever, there is an urgent need to establish legislative change that will ensure a Living Wage for garment workers globally; from Leicester to Dhaka to Phnom Penh. Click here find out more about The Circle’s Living Wage work.

Article written by Anna Renfrew, Projects and Communications Officer at The Circle.


Domestic Violence in South Africa

Image: Khayelitsha, South Africa

This week has seen the global number of COVID-19 cases surpass 8.5 million, with many countries worldwide continuing to implement some form of lockdown measures. As the country with the highest number of infections on the African continent (over 90,000 cases and 1800 deaths as of June 22nd), South Africa has been no exception, introducing one the strictest lockdown policies of any country. In place since midnight on March 26th, South Africa’s exceptionally strong lockdown involved the deployment of almost 25,000 security forces personnel to enforce the strict new regulations (more than 17,000 arrests were made for lockdown violations in the first 6 days alone), and a ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. These measures stayed in place for over two months, with the first relaxation of restrictions to a ‘level three’ response only happening on June 1st.

While the implementation of lockdowns across the globe have successfully prevented even greater rates of infection and death, they unfortunately bring with them an unintended, deadly consequence – an increase in domestic violence. An upsurge in violence has been reported in all corners of the globe: in Hubei, the Chinese province at the epicentre of the original outbreak, domestic violence reports rose by over 300% during February. In Malaysia and Lebanon, calls to hotlines have doubled on the previous year. A recent report by the United Nations Population Fund explores the recognised increase in domestic violence cases since the onset of lockdown around the world, stating the primary reason for increased rates of violence as the simple fact that stay-at-home orders and restrictions on movement increase women’s exposure to violent partners. An increased amount of time in the presence of an abuser increases the likelihood that a victim will be subject to a violent attack.

The economic pressure felt in households worldwide resulting from COVID-related involuntary unemployment, reduced salaries and redundancies also contributes to this phenomenon, as financial stress increases incidences of domestic violence. Nearly 60% of women globally are employed in service industries (such as childcare, retail and hospitality) and countless numbers in the informal economy, which are disproportionately affected by current restrictions due to the difficulty of fulfilling such roles remotely. In South Africa, over one third (35.9%) of women who are employed are employed informally. This means women are uniquely impacted by the economic consequences of COVID. This loss of financial security decreases a woman’s economic independence, further reducing their freedom from violent partners and giving them even fewer resources with which to flee a setting of violence.

The increased strain on domestic violence support services is another factor contributing to this ‘second pandemic’ in countries around the world. Lockdown measures and transport restrictions reduce the ability of domestic violence workers to physically meet survivors, or for survivors to access friends and family who act as their support networks. Domestic violence shelters and meeting spaces have in some cases been shut down or repurposed as intensive care clinics or homelessness shelters, with technical issues and staff illness further reducing their capacity to assist victims.

As a country where seven women are killed every day and a reported 40-50% of men have admitted perpetrating physical partner violence, South Africa was already tackling an epidemic in domestic violence before the onset of lockdown. Thousands of protestors took to the streets of Cape Town last September in response to rising rates of violence, prompting President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare femicide a national crisis and promise new measures including dedicated sexual offences courts and harsher penalties for perpetrators. There were therefore fears that South Africa would be especially vulnerable to a spike in domestic violence cases resulting from lockdown measures, and early reports indicated this was indeed the case – a founding member of one women’s NGO reported in mid-April that domestic violence shelters were already reaching capacity.Furthermore, from the start of the lockdown to May 1st, the Gender Based Violence National Command Centre (which has remained fully operational throughout the pandemic) had received 12,000 calls. Yet official data released by Police Minister Bheki Cele indicates that domestic violence cases were down 69.4% and hospital admissions for trauma down 66% in the month of March compared to the previous year, suggesting the trend in South Africa may not be clear cut. How can we make sense of this drop in reported cases amongst the increased vulnerability to violence that women are experiencing at this time?

A key element of the South African lockdown has been the total ban on the sale of alcohol, which may have curbed violent or abusive behaviour to a certain extent. The World Health Organisation recognises that “alcohol consumption, especially at harmful and hazardous levels, is a major contributor to the occurrence of intimate partner violence” and records that in South Africa, 65% of women experiencing spousal abuse within the last year reported that their partners always or sometimes drank alcohol before the assault.

Image: Protesters in Cape Town. Nic Bothma/EPA

Secondly, the strict nature of lockdown rules in South Africa mean that it is more difficult for victims to report cases and some women are simply unable to do so, meaning the reported number is highly likely to be an underestimate of the true figures. Restrictions on movement outside of the home mean women intending to report abuse or flee may have no valid excuse to give their abuser for leaving the house, and as highlighted earlier, they may be unable to seek refuge in a shelter or other safe space due to those spaces being repurposed or temporarily shut down. Fear of harsh punishment if caught breaching lockdown regulations by one of the 25,000 security personnel enforcing the policy may also deter women from seeking help outside the home. Within the home, many women may now be spending 24 hours a day in the presence of their abuser, rendering it often impossible to make phone calls seeking help or reporting abuse. While some NGOs are striving to establish online and text message services and national hotlines remain open, this only partially mitigates the problem. Intimate partner violence has always been a grossly underreported crime, with a reporting rate of under 40% before COVID-19, so reporting may be far below 40% now due to the unique difficulties presented by lockdown measures. In recognition of this dilemma, the United Nations has stated that “in the case of restricted movement and limited privacy, women are finding it difficult to phone for help. So, the likelihood is that even these figures represent only a fraction of the problem.”

Earlier this month South Africa implemented the first relaxation of its lockdown measures to a ‘level three’ response, sending an estimated 8 million people (of a population of 58 million) back to work. There are hopes that this will provide some respite for domestic violence victims, allowing them more time away from their abuser and a better chance to contact support networks if they or their abuser are now returning to work. Domestic violence services will also benefit from an increased capacity to help victims, but the resumption of sales of alcohol from June 1st as part of this first phase of relaxation casts doubt upon whether the safety of women in South Africa will improve as a result of these measures. One thing that is certain is the importance of South Africa, and all other countries, ensuring they employ and prioritise a gender-responsive strategy within their COVID-19 responses for the duration of the pandemic. If they fail to do so, and instead choose to de-prioritise gender-based violence during this crucial time, the overall indirect death toll from COVID-19 will be much, much higher.

To support survivors of violence in South Africa through the Women and Girls Solidarity Fund, click here.

This article was written by Holly. Holly is 23 years old from East Sussex, England. Since graduating with a degree in Politics and Economics in 2018 she has worked and volunteered in Africa and Asia and is currently living in China. Her interests include human rights, international security and development.


What We’re Reading: May and June

Image:  Workers in a garment factory in Hawassa, southern Ethiopia. Eyerusalem Jiregna/AFP via Getty Images

Each month, we’ll tell you what we’ve been reading at The Circle to get you feeling engaged, informed, and inspired by the global rights movement.  You might find an interview, a long read, a novel, or just a short news update – so, here is our round up for May & June! 

Over the past couple of weeks we have seen hundreds of anti-racism resources being shared on social media. For the May & June reading list we are sharing with you some of the articles that we have been reading and further resources below which have been recommended by on social media. 

‘Racism is at the heart of fast fashion – it’s time for change’ – Kalkidan Legesse, The Guardian

Kalkidan Legesse, a social entrepreneur and black woman, is the owner of Sancho’s, a black woman owned ethical and sustainable clothing store in Exeter. Legesse has written an incredibly important article for the Guardian, talking about the deep-rooted racism within the fashion industry. Legesse reminds us that the ‘economic exploitation that fast fashion is reliant upon is a legacy of colonialism’ and that ‘Of the 74 million textile workers worldwide, 80% are women of colour.’ If we want to see change in this industry, we need to be holding brands accountable and avidly supporting equal representation. 

‘Black Trans Lives Matter’: We can’t let the government bury an assault on trans rights – Leah Cowan, Gal-dem 

 Amid protests and a racist pandemic, politicians are trying to quietly backslide on trans rights by scrapping proposed amendments to the Gender Recognition Act. 

‘Women and Black Lives Matter’ – Marcia Chatelain, Dissent Magazine

This was an interview with Marcia Chatelain, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, published in Summer 2015Chatelain and interviewer Kaavya Asoka discuss the role of black women in the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of recognizing that gender and sexuality are crucial and central to discussions about police brutality. Chatelain argues, “I think any conversation about police brutality must include black women. Even if women are not the majority of the victims of homicide, the way they are profiled and targeted by police is incredibly gendered.” 

‘A Letter From Aurelia: Black Lives Matter’ – Kya Buller, Aurelia Magazine

Aurelia Magazine was founded by Kya Buller in 2018 and publishes a variety of content by women and non-binary people. You will find beautiful pieces on identity, literature, culture and so much more. Aurelia is dedicated to publishing work by black women/non-binary writers and they are doing incredible work to support diversity and representation in the publishing industry. We need more publications like Aurelia Magazine both online and in print. Support Black owned businesses. Listen to Black voices. Sign petitions. Donate to causes. Say their names. Don’t ever stop saying their names.’ 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

This book is certainly one that should be on A-level and university reading lists. The fictional narrative switches between the two main protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze who live in Nigeria. Ifemelu then moves to America whilst Obinze moves to London and they are both wrestling with what it means to be black in these countries. Americanah is an essential book to read and be aware of in order to educate oneself about racism and immigration. 

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years. 

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.  

Now is the Time: Impactful Change in the Fashion Industry – The Circle

Non-essential retail shops in England re-opened today and garment retailers including Primark, TK Maxx and Nike were met with long queues of eager shoppers. Although for many this will signal the beginning of the end in terms of the UK’s nearly three-month lockdown, for the workers who produce our clothing, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will be long lasting. 

More useful resources and campaigns

Books 

  • Your Silence Will Not Protect You, Audre Lorde 
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge 
  • Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankin 
  • Me and White Supremacy, Layla F Saad

 


Garment Workers’ Stories

Image: National Garment Workers Federation

As part of the Women and Girls Solidarity Fund, we’ve made emergency grants to partners in Bangladesh to provide essential supplies including food, protective masks and soap to garment workers who have been left destitute.

Garment workers have been left without work as factories have closed due to dwindling orders. Many of these workers are migrant women. With historically low wages, it is impossible to save and workers are now unable to pay for housing or food. We heard a number of stories from workers who have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis:

“I am Suraiya and I am working as helper for last 4 months in Interlink Apparels Ltd. I have a daughter of 5 years old and a son of 10 years old. 10 years ago, I had early marriage at the age of 16. I did not work in the garment factory before but it was very difficult for us to run the family with the sole income of my husband. Due to the struggle of severe poverty I came to Dhaka city four months back and joined in a garment factory. My husband used to run a tea stall in Gazipur area. We have to pay 4000 bdt as house rent. It is still a struggle to run a family of four members after paying half of the wage for house rent.

Due to the lockdown, my husband cannot run his tea stall anymore and I have been laid off by my factory. I do not know whether I will get my full wage or not. We do not have any income now but we have to pay our house rent, we have to feed our children. The situation is the worst now. After paying the house rent we will not have any money to have our food even. We do not know what will happen to us.” – Suraiya, 26

“My factory is a sweater factory where I work in knitting section. In November, 2019 the factory was declared closed informing over the phone without paying the due wage. When we asked the wage for that period the management informed that, if you want to continue the work without wage come into the office, otherwise we need not to come.

The factory re-opened on February 8, 2020. We got the wage of February at the beginning of March then again the factory has closed. The factory declared closure and we are worried about the wages as we were not paid for March. The Eid is ahead and we are worried about our Eid bonus as well.

There are four members in our family and we are going through terrible suffering due to poverty. We are surviving somehow by having only one time meal a day and the condition is same among other co-workers as well. We do not have any money in our hand now and the shops are not allowing further buying without paying the prior dues. The landlord is also asking for the rent and asking to leave the house if unable to pay the rent. Where we will go and what we will eat now? When we do not have any food, maintaining social distance and thinking about hygiene issues seems like a luxury to us. We need support to live.” – Md Shahin Alam

Image: National Garment Workers Federation

“I work in a garment factory. Our factory has laid us off and we have not received the due wages. We are worried about not getting paid, but if we do that the amount will not be in full. They will deduct our wage. According to the labor law I have heard that, we can get the half of the wage for the laid off period but that will be very small in amount. How we will manage our house rent and food with this amount? I went to the local government official for the government’s relief support but the officer said as the government is supporting the RMG sector that I am not eligible for this support.” – Mos. Laboni Akter Salma

These are just a few stories of the millions of garment workers impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. We need to hold brands and retailers accountable and ensure that garment workers are provided for in this time of crisis.

We are still fundraising to support as many women and girls as possible with our emergency appeal. You can donate by clicking here. 


The Circle’s Music Auction

 

Annie Lennox, Sting, Taylor Swift, Emeli Sandé, Jessie J, Paloma Faith, Celeste and more launch The Circle Music Auction. All proceeds to go to The Circle’s global Covid-19 Emergency Appeal.

Singer-Songwriter, Activist and Founder of The Circle, Annie Lennox, has invited fellow musicians to contribute to The Circle Music Auction to help raise funds for women and girls across the globe who have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.

Enter Now!

 

The Circle Music Auction, which is live on the platform Charity Stars, invites partakers to bid on auction items or buy tickets for a sweepstake competition (starting price $10). The auction will close Friday 10th July, and the sweepstake will end Friday 31st July.

Annie Lennox, Sting, Emeli Sandé, Jessie J, Yola, Paloma Faith, Jessie Ware, Hozier, Anoushka Shankar, Jack Savoretti, Skin (Skunk Anansie), Simon Neil (Biffy Clyro) and Frank Turner have kindly donated two personalised performances for the auction (one for the winner of the highest bid, and one for the winner of the sweepstake competition). Winners will receive an exclusive, pre-recorded video featuring a live performance of one or two songs chosen from the winners list alongside a personalised message.

In addition to the exclusive personalised performances, The Circle Music Auction will also feature lots kindly donated by musicians. These include an Alberta Ferreti silk dress worn by Annie Lennox for performances, a signed guitar from Taylor Swift, a signed outfit worn by Madison Beer for her ‘Good in Goodbye’ video shoot, and a virtual afternoon tea and two song performances by BRITs Rising Star Award Winner, Celeste.

The crisis for thousands of women living in poverty is acute.  Many no longer have any income, are suffering domestic violence and have nowhere to turn.  I am delighted that such incredible musicians are stepping up to join me and offer support.” – Founder of The Circle, Annie Lennox

‘Annie Lennox is a wonderful friend and I am pleased to support her & The Circle in their important fight for vulnerable women and girls around the world devastated by the impact of COVID.’  – Sting

‘These are painful times across the world, and I show my continued solidarity to fighting injustices. In support of The Circle’s music auction, which is supporting vulnerable marginalised women and girls disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic, I am pleased to offer my incredible fans such a personal prize to raise much needed funds. Whatever the reason you are bidding, your support will provide much needed emergency support in these difficult times.’ – Emeli Sandé

All funds raised by The Circle Music Auction will go to The Circle’s The Women and Girls Solidarity Fund to support immediate needs such as food and hygiene packages, access to safe refuges and legal aid packages. The emergency appeal is supporting The Circle’s current and expanding portfolio of project partners which particularly focus on women and girls in Asia and Africa who are affected by rising domestic violence and workers in the garment industry faced with total loss of income. The NGO has already deployed grants to scale up helplines and public awareness campaigns on domestic abuse.

Examples of how the funds will provide support:

  • £15 could provide emergency parcels including food, hygiene kits, and menstrual products for three women in Uganda.
  • £20 could provide a garment worker and her family in Bangladesh who have been left destitute with essential supplies of food, soap, and protective equipment including masks and hand sanitiser.
  • £40 could provide one week of safe refuge for a survivor of violence at the Nonceba Centre in South Africa.

‘The COVID pandemic has turned the world upside down and recent events have rightly seen an outpouring of support for marginalised communities. The Circle stands in solidarity. It has long been there for the world’s most vulnerable women and girls and we continue to provide support at a time of great urgency with the launch of The Circle Music Auction.’ – Raakhi Shah, CEO of The Circle

Enter Now!


Now is the Time: Impactful Change in the Fashion Industry

Image: Better Work, ILO/IFC

Non-essential retail shops in England re-opened today and garment retailers including Primark, TK Maxx and Nike were met with long queues of eager shoppers. Although for many this will signal the beginning of the end in terms of the UK’s nearly three-month lockdown, for the workers who produce our clothing, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will be long lasting.

We have seen many brands and retailers abandon their suppliers in time of need, as clothing orders dwindled and factories in large garment producing countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, were forced to close. Although some brands have made commitments to pay workers for orders already fulfilled, many have shown a complete disregard for the rights and livelihoods of the most vulnerable in their supply chain and some point blank refused to pay, including Kohl’s who used force majeure clauses in contracts to avoid paying for clothing already made and ready to ship. We cannot forget their actions and fall back into our old consumer driven behaviours. Now is the time for change.

Now more than ever, we are examining the inequalities that persist throughout our society and nowhere is that more apparent than in the garment industry. Of the some 74 million textile workers worldwide an estimated 80% are women, many of whom are women of colour, single and migrants. In Pakistan, it has been predicted that 1 million workers will lose their jobs as a result of the crisis and in Bangladesh some 2.27 million workers have been affected by cancelled orders. Many of these workers are young women who are often the family’s primary breadwinner. For them, and for all those employed in the fast fashion industry, the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic must not be forgotten.

Now more than ever is the time to introduce legal mechanisms that will protect these workers from weak contractual agreements that have been exposed over the last few months, poverty wages that do not allow them to save for periods of uncertainty, and unsafe working conditions that put their lives at risk.

The Circle has provided grants to partners in Bangladesh to provide immediate emergency relief to garment workers and their families who have been left destitute, but core to our work is the goal of building robust legal frameworks to ensure that these women can work with the dignity and rights that they are entitled to. With The Lawyers Circle, we are advocating for the fundamental right of a living wage to be introduced for garment workers by bringing about legislation that will ensure that a living wage is paid by fashion brands to the millions of women and men in their global supply chains. This legislation is vital to prevent further poverty as global economies move into recession.

What can you do?


Force Majeure and Covid-19: A Guide for Suppliers in the Garment Industry

Image: Getty Images

Due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, many Western retailers have cancelled orders, demanded discounts and in some cases refused to pay for orders already completed. These cancellations have had a devastating effect on garment workers in global supply chains – effectively abandoning some of the world’s most vulnerable workers.

Brands have justified their actions by claiming that Covid-19 constitutes an event of force majeure. But what is force majeure? Does it apply in this case? And what legal rights does a supplier have if a brand cancels or refuses to pay on this basis?

Working in partnership with Traidcraft Exchange, The Circle is proud to publish a briefing for suppliers on force majeure.

The briefing provides background to the meaning and application of force majeure and highlights steps suppliers can take in their negotiations with brands and retailers when force majeure is used to renege on a contract or purchasing order.

Read the full briefing here: Force Majeure and Covid-19: A Guide for Suppliers in the Garment Industry

 
Early indications (from April) estimated a total of £20 billion of orders worldwide had been cancelled, although this figure may now be lower as some brands have backtracked due to public pressure. Industry insiders estimate 60 million garment workers will struggle to weather the crisis as many go without pay and face being fired.

“As far as buyers are concerned, there has never been any real room for negotiations,” according to one major garment supplier in India. And yet, as noted by the briefing:

“…a brand cannot rely on force majeure to get out of a contract that is merely difficult or less profitable. Force majeure is not a cure for a contract that is no longer practical or economically viable for a brand or retailer.”

 
Brands must take responsibility – to stand by their contracts, their suppliers, and the global multitude of workers who have helped generate their profits over these last decades.

 

Image: Fabeha Monir for The New York Times


Migration and Violence Against Women in Guatemala

Image: Mujerave collaborates with local women’s group on strengths-based consciousness raising activities.

We’re pleased to have Kody Gerkin, Author and Founder of Mujerave, to write a special feature article on the links between poverty, migration and violence against women and girls in Guatemala. 

Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a woman. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, three Central American countries that share borders, all rank in the top five globally for their rates of femicide. According to Amnesty International, women are often murdered in Guatemala after being sexually assaulted. Perpetrators of these crimes operate in a country where less than four per cent of all homicides result in convictions. According to the United Nations, crimes against women in Guatemala go unpunished in more than 88% of reported cases. Guatemalan women also suffer from some of the highest rates of interfamilial violence in the world.

While violence against women in Guatemala is the focus of much research and discourse, less is said about the connection between migration and the perceived vulnerability of women in Guatemala. From January to September of 2019, one percent of Guatemala’s population migrated to the United States. According to a 2019 study by the United States Agency for International Development, 1 in 4 Guatemalans intend to migrate from Guatemala. 85% of those respondents listed the United States as their destination of choice. How do economic factors and gender-based cultural constructs influence who migrates and who is left behind in Guatemala? What are the implications for our understanding of gender-based violence and sexual assault through the juxtaposition of migration and the perceived vulnerability of women in Guatemala?

Image: A statue in a popular roundabout of a man departing home, an homage to the Guatemalan immigrant, near Totonicapán, Guatemala

My perspective on these issues is informed by over five years of living in rural Guatemala and working on gender-based sustainable development projects with indigenous communities. This began when I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 2006-2008 in the remote province of Totonicapán, Guatemala, one of the smallest and poorest departments in the country. In 2014, I moved back to Guatemala and founded the non-profit organisation Mujerave with a network of indigenous women from Totonicapán. Using a gender mainstreaming framework, Mujerave builds on the powerful contribution women have made to family and community health in indigenous Maya communities for millennia. Mujerave collaborates with the foremost experts on indigenous family well-being in Guatemala, rural women’s groups, to carry out high-impact projects to generate income and improve family health. Mujerave also provides employment for women in rural Guatemala. I am not Guatemalan, nor a woman, nor a victim of gender-based violence. I have done my best lift the voices of Guatemalans on these issues, including a victim of gender-based violence who is a board member for Mujerave in Guatemala.

Image: Author and Founder of Mujerave, Kody M. Gerkin, attends a meeting with a women’s group in Totonicapán, Guatemala

Modern migration from Guatemala – who migrates, and why?

During Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans fled north to escape persecution from the Guatemalan military. Indigenous Maya, roughly half of Guatemala’s population, suffered a targeted genocide that left hundreds of thousands dead or disappeared. The worst of the atrocities occurred in the early 1980s. Even after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, formally ending the war, security conditions in Guatemala remained abysmal. Today, safety concerns continue to motivate many Guatemalans to flee their homes and migrate to the United States.

Since the signing of the Peace Accords, however, economic concerns have come to rival security concerns as the primary motivating factor for Guatemalans to migrate. In surveys of Guatemalan immigrants along the U.S. border and of undocumented immigrants being deported, economic concerns have equaled or even surpassed the threat of violence as the impetus for making the journey. One Guatemalan immigrant, we’ll call him Marvin, said “what motivated me to emigrate was that I had land to build a house, our own house, for me and my wife and our two children,” Marvin said. “But, with the salary I earned in Guatemala, it would never be enough for me to build the home,” Marvin continued, recalling what motivated him to migrate north in 2005.

It is important to make distinctions about who migrates from Guatemala due to economic concerns—not all Guatemalans live in poverty or extreme poverty. One difference in migratory patterns exits between ladino Guatemalans, those whose blood lines can (at least in part) be traced back to Spain, and indigenous Maya, like Marvin and his family. Since the dawn of colonisation in Guatemala, lucrative farmland, political connections, and industrial might have been maintained—by force when necessary—by the ladinos.  As a result, Maya in Guatemala are among the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. Indigenous communities increasingly rely on remittances, money sent from relatives working abroad back to their family in their country of origin, to meet their basic needs. More than ten percent of Guatemala’s economy as measured by gross domestic product is generated by remittances. While data in recent years is suggesting a “genderization” of immigration, migrants from Guatemala who migrant for economic reasons tend to be male. Women who migrate are more likely to do so with other family members, while men are more likely to migrate alone.

In my work in Southwestern Colorado with immigrants from Guatemala, most immigrants I worked with who migrated alone were, like Marvin, male and motivated to migrate because of poverty. Migrating to the United States is, for many young men, a rite of passage in Guatemala, a journey imbued with cultural merit stretching beyond mere economics. One 17-year-old immigrant from Totonicapán shared with me that it wasn’t even his decision to come to the United States. His father sat him down one day and bluntly told him it was time—it was his turn to travel to the United States and do as his father had done.

Guatemalan migration and perceived vulnerability

Do male-dominated migratory patterns heighten the perceived vulnerability of women and children who are left behind in Guatemala? To answer this question, we must explore the culture of indigenous communities in Guatemala through a gendered lens. To begin, land in rural areas is almost never owned by women. When men die, land and other resources are often transferred to the husbands’ male children or other male family members, upholding a longstanding patrilineal tradition for land and other resources in Guatemala. This is important in areas where subsistence farming is the primary source of employment—those who don’t own land are dependent on those who do. Indigenous women constitute nearly 90% of the informal economy in rural areas and seldom hold jobs in the formal economy. Women are trained to weave traditional clothing, cook, and practice small animal husbandry—all activities that can be done in or near the home. Indigenous women will, on average, attend only four years of formal schooling in Guatemala. These factors influence who eventually makes the long, difficult journey north—those who are perceived in these communities as having the potential to earn more money. Many families support or encourage migration because they assume the remittances will act as buffer between their family and extreme poverty. This means that if a family can only afford an expensive coyote to smuggle one family member across the border, it will likely be male.

Image: In rural indigenous communities in Guatemala, women remain largely relegated to traditional roles of cooking and childrearing

Other cultural and socioeconomic factors increase women’s perceived vulnerability when their husbands migrate north. When couples marry in Guatemala, it is common for them to build a house adjacent to their parents’ home, or an extra room connected to that of their parents. Often, the newlyweds join the husband’s parents on or near their farmland due to the patrilineal access to resources. When a husband migrates, women are forced to rely on their in-laws for access to basic needs like shelter and food. Within the context of extreme poverty, women are unlikely to report perpetrators to police in these situations. Doing so would essentially cut off their immediate family’s link to basic needs. Patriarchal cultural patterns ensure many family members, men and women, will strive to keep abuse a family secret. This allows would be perpetrators of interfamilial violence or sexual assault the foresight of near-guaranteed impunity.  According to Marvin, “for those of us who have to emigrate to another country, we leave our families behind, we leave them homeless in a sense, and many people take advantage of the vulnerability of family members left behind. Not just sexual assault, but in other ways, too.”

Seeking justice for gender-based violence in Guatemala

Maya women in Guatemala face what is known as three-pronged discrimination—they are indigenous, they are poor, and they are women. It is extremely rare for marginalised indigenous women to contact the police or hire a lawyer if they are a survivor of sexual assault or interfamilial violence. Take Carmen, a Guatemalan woman from Xesana, a small village in Totonicapán. Carmen married at a young age and had a son, but soon realised her husband drank too much. He began to abuse her physically, and demand sex by force. Carmen said she did not initially report her abusive husband for a variety of reasons. “Most police officers won’t do anything when you do report violence within the family…in our communities, they see it as a family problem the family needs to solve,” Carmen said. Many indigenous women, like Carmen, view the mostly male Guatemalan police force to be corrupt, inept, and lacking the resources to assist in crisis. Guatemalan police will often demand gas money to travel to remote areas to take police reports. No money for gas? Do not expect the police to arrive. Carmen also said that “it’s too easy for men who have been accused of violence to hide out,” as local police simply do not have the resources to track these perpetrators down. “Women rely on men,” Carmen continued, “they are isolated from their families…of course, some women will say they are in love and that’s why they don’t report it, because they don’t know better”. Earned through her lived experience, Carmen displayed a clear understanding of the destructive cycle of gender-based violence during our interview.

Marvin, for his part, has been trying to seek justice for his daughter, who he learned in 2018 had been sexually abused by his brother-in-law years earlier. When asked if he felt his presence in Guatemala may have prevented the abuse suffered by his daughter, Marvin’s answer was revealing. “I think that if a person wants to sexually or physically abuse a person in a situation of vulnerability, they will do it one way or another. I do think I could have avoided this situation altogether if I had not decided to emigrate to this country, but the perpetrator would have sought another victim if he felt my daughter was protected by me still living with my family in Guatemala,” Marvin said. Marvin said that “many people who are in my same position decide to leave everything as it is and not seek justice because of how frustrating and expensive the process can be”. Neither Marvin, nor other male migrants, are responsible for the victimisation of their wives and children in Guatemala. We must hold the perpetrators responsible for their actions. However, there remains value in exploring why so many women experience a perceived increase in vulnerability due to migration. These explorations can contribute to our understanding of the root causes of gender-based and interfamilial violence in Guatemala and elsewhere.

Carmen took her fight to local courts. “In the end, though the police wouldn’t do anything, I took him to local court, and they granted me a divorce and child support for our infant son,” Carmen said. She moved in with her maternal grandmother, and she raised both her son and a nephew who was left in her care by a sibling. Since then, she has worked for the local municipal Oficina de la Mujer, the Women’s Affairs Office, and five years ago, she joined Mujerave’s board of directors. Carmen’s strength and tenacity have made her an invaluable asset to Mujerave in Guatemala. Since 2015, Carmen has delivered capacity building workshops for Mujerave’s Community-Based Education Program. This gives Carmen a platform and a safe space to lead conversations and facilitate women-to-women indigenous knowledge sharing. In this role, Carmen share her experiences, shares her strength, and inspires other women to seek justice.

The Response – Next Steps

In Guatemala, there is growing support for policies that promote equitable gender-based access to political power, education, and the ownership of land. Other proportional representation democracies in Latin America have codified women’s political representation by passing legislation mandating that parties include a minimum percentage of female candidates on their ballots. In Costa Rica, for example, it is 50%. These measures could impact the root causes of sexual assault and interfamilial violence identified herein. Lobbying leaders in our home countries to support such policies abroad is a powerful tool.

Grassroots organisations like Mujerave, who are mission bound to operate through a gender-specific lens, also play a role in dismantling the patriarchy in Guatemala and beyond. Mujerave’s workshops explore the imbalance of access to resources for women in Guatemala and bring seldom discussed topics like sexism and interfamilial violence into the open.

Image: Catarina Osorio Tum leads a workshop on gender equity for Mujerave in Totonicapán, Guatemala

Image: Local women who attend three workshops and plant 15 trees are eligible to receive a Mujerave cookstove

These workshops compliment other projects Mujerave carries out as well. Take, for example, Mujerave’s Income Generating Program. These are primarily greenhouses that Mujerave builds close to the homes of the women Mujerave collaborates with. This strategy makes our greenhouses culturally appropriate spaces for women to spend time in, and they promote gender equity by increasing the share of land and income women control within the family. Combined with workshops involving men and women from participating families that explore sexism and interfamilial violence in indigenous communities, and Mujerave is transforming neighbourhoods! To read about how gender informs Mujerave’s work, refer to Mujerave’s Needs Assessment.

Image: Mujerave’s Income Generating Program was built to address gender-based income inequities in rural Guatemala

Support for Mujerave would fall under the theme of prevention, one of four intervention themes identified by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in their 2017 report From Commitment to Action: Policies to End Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean.Other interventions in the report are categorised under the themes of care, punishment, and redress. This report serves as an excellent source for readers seeking more technical, detailed examples of laws and policies proposed in Guatemala and the region to end violence against women. The report also details the large gap between enacting laws and enforcing them. This is a critical gap that must be filled in order to create social and cultural change in the region. This report includes steps Guatemala is already taking to ensure culturally appropriate access to justice for indigenous women, like Carmen, to combat sexual assault and femicide.


Women and Girls Solidarity Fund: Impact So Far

 

We want to say a huge thank you to all of our supporters, members, allies and friends who have donated to our emergency appeal that we launched to respond to the additional challenges that the women and girls in our projects are facing during this crisis. Thanks to your efforts, we have been able to directly support marginalised women and girls across the globe. We have already made emergency grants to projects support projects in Uganda and Scotland.  

Emergency Supplies in Uganda

We have provided funds to Irise International so that they can provide provision and protection to vulnerable women and child-led households in Uganda. Women, unable to leave their houses for fear of police brutality, are struggling to feed their children or access reproductive healthcare and contraception. Irise is working with local government to deliver essential supplies to vulnerable women including food, hand sanitiser, menstrual pads and educational materials.  

After ten days of distribution, Irise have been able to reach a total of 398 vulnerable people in 93 households with 136 emergency relief packs.  

This is Jess. She is 18 years old and is the sole carer for these children aged 3 and 5. She’s been working as a hairdresser, but like so many others, has been unable to work during lockdown and faces terrifying uncertainty. Irise have been able to deliver essential supplies to her and will ensure that she is able to cope over the coming weeks.  

Irise are also using funds to ensure safeguarding within the community. They are working with the local government’s probation service to report and follow-up with vulnerable girls and young people. Cases include identifying three sisters aged 19-13 years old, who have been forced into prostitution to survive. Irise was able to provide them with vital supplies and will continue to work with the Gender Officer and District Office to safeguard these girls.  

Survivor Services in Scotland

Across the UK, three million women experience some form of gender-based violence every year, but these numbers have risen dramatically as social isolation policies have left women and girls vulnerable to abuse. Estimates suggest that there will be 15 million additional cases of domestic violence every 3 months of lockdown globally. Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis provides free and confidential support to girls and women who have experienced rape, sexual assault and sexual violence. Due to the UK’s lockdown, the centre are unable to offer their drop-in service that is a lifeline for survivors. We have provided the centre with funds to increase website capacity and launch a dedicated text support service for survivors to access counselling and support. This service will allow the centre to respond to the needs of sexual violence who are not in a position to phone the counsellors. This service will provide vital support for at least 1,500 women and girls.  

 

 

Supporting Garment Workers

With the money that our supporters have raised, we will be able to provide food and medical supplies to 500 garment workers in Bangladesh who have been left destitute. Supporting garment workers is crucial at this time. As soon as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, major garment companies responded by pushing risk and costs down the supply chain. Garment workers in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Pakistan have been left without work with factories being forced to close due to dwindling orders. Many of these workers are migrant women. With historically low wages, making it impossible to accumulate savings, these workers are now struggling to pay for housing or essential supplies. We are working with partners to provide emergency relief packages containing food, protective masks and soap.  

The need is only going to increase as some of the world’s poorest countries begin to feel the full force of Covid-19. We have long been there for the world’s most vulnerable women and we will continue to do so at this time of great emergency.  

If you can, support our emergency appeal by donating and sharing and allow us to reach even more women and girls.  


The Impact of COVID-19 on Garment Workers

 

The Circle’s Living Wage Team consider the impact of COVID-19 on garment workers and the fashion industry and discuss why, more than ever, a living wage needs to be recognised as a fundamental human right.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the extreme vulnerability of workers in global garment supply chains as hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs and livelihoods as a result of demand drying up and brands cancelling manufacturing orders.

The pandemic highlights the weak contractual agreements suppliers have with brands and retailers and lays bare the limitations of the current approach to protecting worker’s rights. For years companies have preferred voluntary codes of conduct, arguing that they can self-regulate their behaviour. Recent events show these have failed – and that we need legal mechanisms to strengthen the responsibilities companies have, to uphold the rights of workers in their supply chain. This issue has never been so important. Understanding exactly what those responsibilities entail is key as we go forward into debates about the recovery of garment manufacturing and how to structure a fair and sustainable supply chain. The Circle’s Living Wage Project can play an important role in creating a space for this, providing legal expertise, facilitating discussion and collaborating with key stakeholders to bring legal solutions that will work.

How is COVID-19 impacting garment workers?

The full economic and social impact of COVID-19 on workers in the garment supply chain is as yet unknown, but the effect is global. Economies are slowing, many tipping into recession. Shops have closed, demand for fashion has dried up and companies are facing huge losses in revenue. In an effort to bolster much needed liquidity to keep them afloat, many brands and retailers are aggressively cutting costs overseas, in effect shifting the risk onto their suppliers. As a result, many companies are refusing to honour their contracts with suppliers, either through non-payment of orders already complete or in process, refusal to pay for materials already purchased by factories, cancellation of future orders or forcing the extension of payment deadlines.

The Workers Rights Consortium estimate there are a total of 50 million workers in production factories worldwide. Early indications estimate a total of £20 billion of orders worldwide have been cancelled, and in Bangladesh alone, the second biggest apparel producer, an estimated $6 billion in export revenue is estimated to be lost. This in turn is devastating for textile workers who are losing their livelihoods and sometimes their homes as a result. In Pakistan 1 million workers are set to lose their jobs while reports from Bangladesh indicate some 2.27 million workers are affected by cancelled orders. Many of these workers are young women, often their family’s primary wage earner and the impact on them will be devastating.

There is also the issue of the impact of the pandemic on the workers themselves, who risk exposure and lack essential protection such as face masks. Workers therefore have limited ability to protect themselves and limited access to services such as childcare facilities, medical insurance or hazard pay.

While we recognise that many people are also losing their jobs in the West, here there are regulations around corporate behaviour and employment standards that garment workers in the Global South are not protected by. Additionally, many garment workers live in countries with no social protection mechanisms and having received poverty wages for years have no savings to offer any form of buffer in even the short term, let alone if the crisis continues for months – as is predicted. The nature of global supply chains is such that companies in Western markets have profited for years from cheap labour in production countries and now are able to withdraw without any responsibility towards the millions of workers who have helped generate their huge profits.

What should we expect fashion brands to do?

In the first instance brands and retailers must honour their contracts and ensure that the workers who have made their products are paid, that is the minimum. Secondly, brands need to work with their suppliers and as far as is possible support them to keep their workers employed. For many workers if they lose their employment status, they not only lose their income but also risk falling off the radar completely should any state support to factories become available.

In the coming months, questions around how to establish social protection floors which will support workers will need to be addressed, and brands and retailers must be part of that conversation.

How do I know what brands are doing?

It is difficult to know the details of what individual brands are doing but the Workers Rights Consortium (an independent labour rights monitoring organisation) are tracking brands and their commitment to pay in full for orders completed or in production in countries such as Bangladesh. See here.

Another reliable source of information is Clean Clothes Campaign’s live blog, which is updated daily with news reports, categorised by country, detailing the impact of COVID-19 on garment workers around the world.

Why is this important to the Living Wage Project?

The aim of the Living Wage Project is to bring about legislation in the form of a new EU legal framework, to ensure the payment of a living wage by fashion brands to millions of women and men in global garment supply chains. A living wage is a wage that goes beyond a minimum wage and provides the worker with the means to not just survive but also to put some money aside for education and savings. This means they can provide for their family with a buffer against the worst conditions of poverty. Such legislation is more important than ever going forward. Although we don’t know what supply chains will look like after the pandemic is under control, there is no reason to believe globalisation will markedly change  and there is the real possibility that conditions could further worsen for workers in global supply chains as economies move into recession.

Does this change the work of the Living Wage Project?

Yes and No. What the pandemic has shown us more than ever is that voluntarism does not work. The ‘trust’ we have that companies will do the right thing by their workers is misplaced – it’s not enough. Depending upon CSR (corporate social responsibility) to address employment conditions is always going to be piecemeal, and dependent upon the good will and resources of an individual company. To that extent our work going forward on the living wage is critical, strengthening human rights legislation through ensuring workers get paid a living wage.

What can I do to support garment workers?

We must continue to put pressure on fashion brands and retailers to do the right thing by their suppliers and support workers where we can. As individuals it can seem overwhelming and we wonder what role we can play, but brands do listen to customers. Below are some suggestions for action:

Write to the brands

Write to brands that you buy from asking them what they are doing to ensure that garment workers are being paid during this period. Are they honouring their payment for orders already placed? Can they vouch that the payments made are reaching the workers?

For guidance on what to write, you can find a useful template at Fashion Revolution. If you would rather sign a petition, then have Traidcraft Exchange have a letter you can sign your name to.

Donate to The Circle

A donation to The Circle’s Living Wage project will mean we can continue in our work to ensure that workers are paid a living wage. By donating to this project and you are helping to create a “race to the top” to protect the right of millions of workers to receive a living wage. Every contribution will make a difference.

Updates

As a result of ongoing campaigns, it has been officially reported that:

  • Awaj estimates 71% of garment workers were paid in April.
  • Garment Diaries estimates 86% of garment workers were paid.
  • BGMEA reports 2,200 factories have paid workers
  • Wage data details are here. 
  • According to a Brand Tracker, regularly updated by the Worker Rights Consortium, over a dozen large companies, including Uddin’s buyers, as well as Primark, Bestseller, Walmart (Asda), Under Armour, Kohl’s, Ross Dress for Less, Urban Outfitters, and Gap Inc. (Old Navy, Athleta, Banana Republic), among others, have canceled orders or renegotiated payment terms to demand discounts and payment delays.