Who Made Your Clothes?

 

Over the last few years the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethical’ in relation to the fashion industry, have been taking the headlines by storm. On 24th April 2013, it was reported that a factory had collapsed in Bangladesh, leading to the deaths of more than 1,000 workers. Bangladesh is one of the largest garment producers in the world. When we shop on the high street there are no signposts signalling that slavery may be prevalent within their supply chains. We see these amazing garments and are excited to try them on and shop the latest trends but, we do not see the faces of the women who make these garments.

As a person who is highly interested in the craftmanship of clothes and the reinvention of trends, I am conflicted by how I can invest in this industry without contributing to the continuing unethical practices of the fashion industry. We need to make changes in how we make, source, and produce the clothes. Government bodies and retailers need to be made accountable: Eco-age is doing just that.

In an interview for the sustainability consultancy Eco-age, our very own Livia Firth who co-founded The Circle, describes the first time she visited a factory in Bangladesh. In 2013 Firth travelled with Oxfam and says it “changed my entire life”. They were “smuggled” into a factory where there were “armed guards at the doors so no one could come in and out”, “armed bars at the windows, no fire escape […] the floor was full of women who had to produce 100 pieces an hour and these women had no rights” such as no sick leave and only two toilet breaks a day. Even if their child was sick, not working would result in a loss of their jobs. As Livia Firth goes on to say, we are so far-removed from this horrific situation that it is hard to believe that the clothes we wear everyday are linked to this inhumane treatment.

Bangladesh is “such a vibrant, beautiful country, and the women deserve so much more” – Livia Firth

 

I love what Livia Firth also says in this EcoAgeTV video which you can watch on YouTube (see link above). The responsibility lies in all of us, not just the retailers and government bodies who have an immense responsibility to make changes.

The day after the crack was discovered in the factory, the garment workers did not want to go inside but they were threatened. The factory was under pressure to fulfil the orders. Nazma Aktar, Founder and Executive Director of the Awaj Foundation says, “the previous night, everybody knew the factory was not safe. The politicians and the manufacturers forced the workers to enter. It is murder.”

The garment industry is a complicated web of problems that are hard to solve. Aktar goes on to say that out of 4 million workers in the garment industry, 80% are women coming from very poor families who live in the countryside and entering into the urban economy. These jobs are very important for them. If their salaries go up, the factory will close down.

“The multi-nationals always said, if you price more we will leave this country, we will leave this business from Bangladesh.” – Nazma Aktay

 

 

On 11th May 2017 The Circle launched The Living Wage report in partnership with TrustLaw and the Clean Clothes Campaign at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. It is the first report to demand the Living Wage for garment workers.

The report sets out the legal argument that a living wage is a fundamental human right, and that companies and governments have a responsibility to uphold this right.

The report starts by clearly stating how efforts to prevent labour exploitation have been non-binding. They have been ‘voluntary codes and initiatives designed, implemented and monitored by the retail companies that control the supply chain, and normally developed in response to negative publicity generated by investigations carried out by NGOs or the media.’ This behaviour is corrupt. It is utterly inhumane that retailers are not upholding their responsibility to protect their workers. This is where the work that The Circle are doing is fundamental to making progress in the debate about the living wage. The Circle are combining activism and research within a legal framework. This report could really shake up the debate.

Ultimately though, as Firth reminds us, we all have a responsibility to change the face of fashion. We live in a throw-away society and when we discard a garment after only a couple of wears, we are not taking a moment to remember who made it. When we buy and buy and buy, we are giving these companies the means to produce more, faster; “we are completely complicit in the system”. But when we do not buy into this industry, we are taking away work from these women.

We “cannot boycott or stop buying because they need to work”

 So, we need to be actively seeking ways to go to the source of the problem, expose the corruption and improve the lives of these women who deserve so much more.

Firth tells Harper’s Bazaar Netherland of some useful tips for how we can shop differently and not treat these women like slave labour. We need to show them that “we really respect their work and we value the things that they make. So, when they sweat on their production line, producing 150 pieces an hour, make them know that we value them, that we are not going to wear them once or twice and then throw them away”

I would highly recommend reading the report (it’s a long one so grab a cup a tea and a couple of biscuits) and get ready to be thoroughly inspired.

Be part of the change. This is just the beginning.

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism

This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is an intern for The Circle. Georgia is a recent English graduate and is passionate about women’s rights and the underlying issues in the fast-fashion industry.

 


The Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka

Our member Dushy has co-written a blog post about Ashila Dandeniya, an inspiring woman working for the rights of garment sector employees, and The Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka.

Founder’s story

Ashila Dandeniya’s was first exposed to Katunayake Industrial Zone soon after finishing school. Her first job was as a Quality Checker for a top garment factory. Ashila’s position was unfairly terminated as a result of a conflict, however, with the support of Right 2 Life Human Rights Centre, she represented herself at the Labour Tribunal at the age of 22 and was offered a settlement amount of 1 year’s salary. This was the beginning of her activist journey to fight for the rights of garment workers in Sri Lanka.

Although she returned to work in another garment factory, before long she left to become a part of ALARM, a subsidiary of Oxfam which worked on projects involving labour rights. She worked as a programme coordinator for 5 years on projects concerning living wage, living condition, and freedom of association. By the end of ALARM assignment, Ashila had experience, expertise, and support among fellow workers in the garment industry. So, with just 12 members, Ashila initiated The Standup Movement to continue the work she’s passionate about.

The Stand Up Movement

The purpose of SUM is to educate the workers in the importance of taking initiative and taking on leadership roles in the factories, to be involved in their worker’s rights and to provide a safe space for the workers to discuss their problems.
In the beginning, SUM focused mainly on creating a dialogue with garment sector workers to understand their concerns and expectations. It emerged out of discussions that workers desired to watch films, an activity banned in most boarding houses due to the electricity usage, as an opportunity to engage with one another. SUM began organizing film screenings which gave SUM the chance to build relationships with workers, gain an insight into their lives and further understand the challenges that they faced.

SUM continued to grow and increase its membership by continuing to hold events for the garment sector workers including a cross-factory cricket tournament between 32 teams that went on for 3 months. It was entirely funded by the workers and resulted in SUM welcoming 250 new members. For a small fee, membership entails donations for the funerals of two family members and access to emergency loans.

Man Sandhi

In 2009, SUM, with the support of Rights Now published ‘Man Sandhi’, a book that included 15 case studies (out of 78 case studies conducted) on how the withdrawal of GSP Plus impacted workers with salary cuts, meal reductions, and the limitation of other essential facilities and provisions factories.
SUM launched the book in the presence of factory owners, international media, NGOs, and workers from various factories to great success. The entire event was organized by the members of SUM and the book written by Ashila herself. As the first publication that discussed the issues from the perspective of the workers, this was a huge step for those in the sector. The acclaim that Ashila received from this publication also continues to raise awareness.

The vision

The vision of SUM is to build a new concept trade union that deviate from traditional methods; a trade union that truly stands for the social security of workers.
SUM believes that traditional trade union methods are presently ineffective, from language and colours they use to strategies they employ to communicate to workers. SUM aims to take a fresh approach in order to achieve a higher participation and is proud of its members who have gone on to take leadership in the field of workers’ rights in their respective factories.

Some of the main challenges that workers face as identified by SUM

– Minimum wage not covering the living wage and the factories justifying this with overtime and incentives.
– Sexual harrassment
– ‘Hidden Cost’— workers doing overtime and not having time for social participation resulting in poor social dignity.
– Working without drinking water, not going to the toilet, and not taking full breaks so that they can achieve targets and make more money.
– Poor diet and as a result suffering from nutritional deficiencies such as Anemia.
– Language and communication problems faced by workers recruited from North and East parts of the island.
– Poor condition of the boarding houses without proper facilities.
– Break-ins at boarding houses.
– Being cheated by vendors.
– Workers consider this as a short term job and therefore less commitment to stand up for rights and make a change.
– Society’s negative attitude towards the factory workers and a general lack of respect from the community.

These issues are incredible damaging to garment sector workers.

Recently, a 23 year-old Tamil speaking female worker committed suicide inside a boarding house on 17th of September after just 3 months of working at the zone. No motive has been identified although the matter has been already closed and declared unsuspicious.

SUM believes that it is important to understand how safe the zone is for these workers who leave their families behind to come and survive on their own. Furthermore, it is vital to understand the necessity of providing a solid support system to the workers to overcome both personal as well as work-related challenges.

Ashila will be speaking at a screening of Made in Sri Lanka happening on 4th January in Colombo, at which she will be discussing SUM’s progress and current projects. Get in contact to find out more details of the event!

This article was written by member of The Circle, Dushy Rabinath and Shyama Basnayaka. Dushy lives and works in Colombo and is passionate about the rights of women.

Photo credit: Dushy and her family in Sri Lanka

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist


8 Things You Should Know about Fast Fashion

 

The fast fashion industry has been a hot topic at The Circle this year. Back in May, The Lawyers Circle published a report that sets out the legal argument that a living wage is a fundamental right. We are now planning a two-year campaign to ensure accountability in the fashion industry, to tackle the poverty wages that blight garment workers’ lives.

With that in mind, here are eight facts you should know about the clothes you wear…

1. The global apparel industry is worth $3000,000,000,000,000

Yes, you read that right: the fashion industry has global revenues of three trillion US dollars. To put that into perspective, you could buy seven million Ferraris with that money, or put fifty million students through university. There’s a lot of money to be made.

2. Much of this revenue comes from fast fashion

Fast fashion is a globalised business strategy which aims to get low-price clothes to the consumer as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Designs seen on the catwalk one week might hit the shops a fortnight later. This is a relatively recent phenomenon (global clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014) and an incredibly lucrative one. For fast fashion companies, that is.

3. While companies profit, their workers suffer

Transnational fashion corporations (the big brand names in fashion) are the real winners in this situation. They can quickly move their production to the lowest-wage states to maximise their profits. Meanwhile, the economies of producer companies have become highly dependent on the sector. This has created a “race to the bottom”, whereby states allow poverty wages in order to attract investment. Garment workers earn just $140 per month in Cambodia, $171 in parts of China and $315 in Romania.

4. Poverty wages aren’t just an issue in South Asia

The Lawyers Circle’s report on the living wage looks at clothing production in a range of countries, from Bangladesh to Morocco, from Portugal to Romania. Garment factories are spread across the globe, but their geographical diversity belies a fundamental similarity: they offer some of the lowest wage rates and worst labour conditions on earth.

5. It is mainly women who are affected

Between 60 and 75 million people work in the textile, clothing and footwear sector worldwide. Almost three quarters of them are women — 3.2 million in Bangladesh alone. Unfortunately, women are easier targets for exploitation and discrimination: they are more vulnerable to intimidation and sexual violence, and less likely to agitate for their rights.

6. Garment workers have been forced to develop coping strategies

Struggling to survive on the minimum wage, garment workers have to cut corners wherever they can. They might take out high-interest loans to pay for school books, or do extensive overtime to cover their utility bills. Many workers are foregoing vital medical treatment in order to save money, and thousands are cutting back on food (one campaigning organisation found that female garment workers could only afford to eat half the calories they needed, and would frequently faint at work as a result).

7. Paying the minimum wage is not enough

Plenty of well-known fashion companies argue that they pay their workers the national minimum wage, and should therefore be exempt from criticism. They do this knowing that the minimum wage (the lowest wage permitted by law) falls far short of the living wage (the amount needed to maintain a normal standard of living). In Cambodia, for example, garment workers can legally be paid just 6% of what they need to live a normal life. Paying the minimum wage is not enough: workers need an income that can comfortably feed their families; they need better working conditions and protection.

8. But there is hope!

Since the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh, which killed 1,334 garment workers, some progress has been made on improving conditions and wages in the garment industry. There have been numerous reports, initiatives, roadmaps and pilot projects, though most of these have yet to be implemented on a wide scale. Major brands have committed to paying the living wage, albeit with a temporal disclaimer – “eventually”, “at some point in the future”.

The Circle and The Lawyers Circle are working to accelerate the process, to ensure that companies accept responsibility for their actions and make concrete improvements to workers’ lives.

The facts in this article have been drawn from the report Fashion Focus: The Fundamental Right to a Living Wage, produced by The Lawyers Circle in partnership with TrustLaw and the Clean Clothes Campaign. Click here to read the full report, and donate to help us guarantee a living wage for all garment workers.