The Unseen Stories: Behind the Lens – A Story of Female Collaboration and Care

The inception of our campaign “Unseen Stories: Behind the Lens” began after we looked at the beautiful images of women from around the world taken by photographers Tara Moller, Mary Quincy and Tara Todras-Whitehill. Prompted to consider the role of the photographer to bring unseen stories to light, we felt compelled to create an informative panel discussion that went to the core of why some women are not seen or heard in global discourse. Given The Circle’s ongoing COVID-19 appeal to help women disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and as a result of the kindness and generosity of our photographers, we were thrilled to be able to launch an auction of exclusive photographs in tandem with our panel event.

“ I love being a part of a progressive and passionate movement….” – Tara Moller

 As members of The Circle, which aims to empower women globally and act as a mouthpiece for vulnerable women and girls around the world, the evocative images demonstrating multiplicity of female experience spoke directly to our concerns around who is seen and who is not, and so we ask again: How is it that today so many women’s stories are still left behind? And, what can we all do to ensure that the global female experience is seen and heard?

“There are so many stories of women that are unheard and unseen and to be able to tell their stories and where they come from is a big opportunity that I am really excited to be a part of” – Mary Quincy

 One of the reasons why we are so excited about Unseen Stories is that the women behind the lens also consider themselves feminist photographers and have a wealth of experience and knowledge that they will be sharing with us in the panel discussion hosted by Rashmi Dube tonight. We will be hearing the stories behind their photographs, their experiences in a very male-dominated industry and what working as a photographer means in the current pandemic circumstances.

“The campaign is dear to my heart because I find it hard in my life to be seen in a true sense, in terms of what I have been through or going through. What is in my power is help be an advocate for others. This project is important as it shines a light and a voice to those who are not seen.” Rashmi Dube, Host of Unseen Stories.

Tonight’s event and the week long campaign – to make available select images generously donated by our photographers through auction and download – is an attempt to move forward this conversation and support The Circle’s  crucial campaign to raise funds for vulnerable women and girls disproportionately affected by the pandemic as part of its ongoing emergency appeal.

The Unseen Stories project and its launch is a great example of that magic combination of our conscientious members, female collaboration and care. We hope that you will enjoy our panel discussion tonight (re-run will be made available) and take the opportunity to view our fantastic photographs.

“Visual storytelling is a vital part of our narrative in this world.” – Tara Todras-Whitehill

To bid on one of the beautiful images in the auction, click here.

For the option of donating and receiving a downloadable version of the photographs, click here.

This blog post was written by member of The Media Circle, Muna Khogali.


No Recourse to Public Funds: Migrant Women and Children Pull the Short Straw

Image: The Unity Project

The No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy has been catapulted into public awareness recently as it emerges that not only are thousands of law-abiding migrant families inching towards destitution amid COVID-19, but the Prime Minister had apparently never heard of the policy that dates as far back as the 1990s while the Home Secretary refuses to make an exemption during this time of unprecedented crisis.

Although NRPF predates the current Conservative government, it has been severely ramped up in the past decade under the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ endeavour. What it means is that migrants in the UK who are not considered ‘habitually resident’ are blanket banned from accessing public funds, including carers allowance, child benefit, Universal Credit, disability living allowance, housing benefit and jobseeker’s allowance. Yet the path to permanent settlement (Indefinite Leave to Remain) for those on a Family Visa can take as long as ten years, during which time applicants must cough up extortionate visa renewals every 2.5 years.

The condition applies to at least 1 million adults and 142,000 children. In the midst of a pandemic where job losses are rife, this NRPF could force as many as 100,000 people into destitution or homelessness according to the Migration Observatory and the Institute for Public Policy Research. However, researchers largely overlook the gendered discriminatory nature of NRPF. Migrant women who are single mothers, pregnant, or are survivors of domestic abuse are overwhelmingly harmed by the benefits ban which, in turn, has an impact on the welfare of their children.

All over the world, women and girls are disproportionately ensnared in domestic duties and childrearing. Whenever the relationship between a mother and father breaks down, women are more likely to become the sole care giver – yet are unable to enter full time work to cover the costs. The UK’s inflexible labour market remains hostile to single mothers, leaving women with little choice but to enter zero hours contracts and other means of insecure work. However, the burden is heavier for migrant single mothers as they are shoved even further into the margins of insecurity and poverty due to the benefit ban. As a result, migrant single mothers are more likely to become trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty; unable to climb the career ladder to earn more money, yet unable to afford childcare costs even if they could work additional hours and no supplementary support in the event they fall into hardship through no fault of their own.

For migrant pregnant women with NRPF, a report published last year by the Unity Project found they are unable to take sufficient maternity leave. Pregnant women with an insecure immigration status are forced to work longer hours both before and after giving birth to cater to the high fees of their new-born baby. Even if the mother-to-be is in a secure job that can provide statutory maternity pay, after the first six weeks the maximum amount is capped at £151.20 per week which without a backlog of savings to rely on, is evidently inadequate to cover rent and other essentials, let alone a child.

To make matters worse, NRPF is putting women’s lives at risk. Migrant women are at an increased risk of domestic abuse when compared to British women, and already figures are reaching eyewatering heights: during COVID-19 lockdown, five women a week have been murdered by the hands of their abuser. Yet NRPF serves to intensify the precarity of migrant abuse victims’ circumstances as without public funds, they can be turned away from refuges. The 2017 Nowhere to Turn Project by Women’s Aid discovered only one refuge space was available to women with NRPF per every region of England, yet the recent Domestic Abuse Bill fails to extend support for women with NRPF or to prevent this from happening again. Campaigners such as The Step Up Migrant Women coalition argue the Bill deliberately ignores migrant women with NRPF, claiming the Government knows they exist but that “it is deliberately choosing to ignore their needs.”There is one, marginal escape route on offer to migrant victims of domestic abuse. The Destitute Domestic Violence Concession opens a shortcut to permanent residency for survivors with a Spouse Visa, however, the process is littered with obstacles and the paperwork is beyond reasonable. Women must jump through hoops to gain a mere three months of public funds while Scottish Women’s Aid even found some councils were advising victims to remain with their abusive partners due to a lack of support. Even so, this backdoor exit is only left ajar for migrant women under Partner Visas; other migrant women under different visa categories are offered no such escape route.

Children to migrant parents are at a clear disadvantage when compared to their peers; they cannot receive free school meals while they are more likely to face destitution and even homelessness as a consequence of their parents’ NRPF. In the event the child does not gain British Citizenship by the time they reach 18, they face international tuition fees to study in a UK university in the country that they have called home their entire lives.

One recent landmark case is exemplary of how NRPF trickles down to affect the standard of life for children. The court heard the heart-wrenching testimony of an eight-year-old British boy who had been plunged into severe poverty his whole life and even street homelessness with his mother, who has NRPF but works as a carer. The court decided NRPF breaches Article 4 of the Human Rights Act in the child’s case, and new guidance has since been issued. However, the new amendment doesn’t go far enough: only those who entered the UK via the family route may apply for protection, and even then, they have to prove that they are at risk of ‘imminent destitution’.

Already, a similar system is in place to protect the welfare of children, which is evidently failing. Local councils have a duty to safeguard its residents and issue Section 17 support in dire circumstances, yet lawyers at Garden Court Chambers have found that not only are applications “onerous, difficult and slow” as a result of austerity and budget cuts, but destitute families have even been told they are not eligible and that their kids may be taken into care. A shocking 6 in 10 families who attempt Section 17 access are refused – and even successful applicants can receive as little as £1.70 a day.

What this shows us is that whenever aid is devolved into the hands of local authorities, vulnerable people become victim to the ‘postcode lottery’ and migrant women with NRPF in particular pull the short straw. The Unity Project goes as far to argue that the Government is failing in its obligation to the Equality Act 2010, finding that NRPF serves as “indirect sex-based discrimination”.

For a country that considers itself propped up by the pillars of civility and justice, this policy that causes new-born babies and children to grow up in extreme poverty, while leaving women with the impossible choice of homelessness or domestic abuse, is in direct conflict with the UK’s commitment to human rights. It is high time the benefits ban is lifted, allowing vulnerable people to access welfare support in the same way Britons can. Until then, No Recourse to Public Funds will continue to unnecessarily spiral thousands of hard-working and ordinary  women and their children into misery and hardship.

If you are concerned about the impact NRPF is having on migrant women and children, contact your local MP today to encourage Boris Johnson and Priti Patel in changing this damaging, hostile policy.

This article was written by Olivia Bridge who is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.


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.


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


What We’re Reading: April

Image: Stylist

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!

She Said – Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey 

 On 5 October 2017, the New York Times published an article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey that helped change the world. Kantor and Twohey out-maneuvered Harvey Weinstein, his team of defenders and private investigators, convincing some of the most famous women in the world – and some unknown ones – to go on the record. Three years later, it led to his conviction. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Defined a Movement, is a gripping account of this story, but more interestingly, an examination of the structures that allowed Weinstein to repeat the same violence over and over, seemingly unscathed.  

Live-blog: How the Coronavirus affects garment workers in supply chains – Clean Clothes Campaign 

This blog collects daily information about how the new Coronavirus COVID-19 is influencing garment workers’ rights in supply chains around the world. It is updated daily as new information comes in from media and the Clean Clothes Campaign global network. 

Displaced and stateless women and girls at heightened risk of gender-based violence in the coronavirus pandemic 

The UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) published an article on 20 April 2020 about the effect that coronavirus is having on victims of domestic abuse around the world. UNHCR explain that isolation policies mean that there is less movement, and this increases the risk of intimate partner violence. Young women “may be forced into survival sex or child marriages by their families.” UNHCR explain what they are doing to support women and girls.  

Frame of Mind 

On 6 April 2020 Alice Aedy launched Frame of Mind which is a platform aiming to celebrate incredible female storytellers in documentary film, photography, journalism and writing. Aedy is a documentary photographer, filmmaker and activist focusing on migration, women’s rights and environmental issues. The focus will be about how female storytellers have explored social issues and created social change. Aedy shared a shocking fact from the New York Times that it is estimated only 0.5% of recorded history includes stories by women. Aedy’s project is important, exciting, and definitely one to stay updated with! Freda interviewed Aedy about her work as a female photographer which you can read here

Selections made by Anna Renfrew and Georgia Bridgett.


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.

COVID-19 Brings Further Devastation to Refugee Camps

Image: Tessa Kraan/BRF

‘Vulnerable women in labour; four-day old babies sleeping in freezing tents.’ – Dr Annie Chapman

COVID-19 is a threat to every country and community, but refugee camps are dealing with impossible circumstances and are housing some of the most vulnerable people in the world. They are nowhere near equipped to deal with a pandemic. This year the Guardian have been very focused on documenting the current conditions in the Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece. One article by Harriet Grant on 11th February 2020 – ‘UN calls for urgent evacuation of Lesbos refugee camp’ –  makes no mention of Coronavirus. But when we consider the devastating conditions that refugees are already facing daily, one cannot help but wonder how it is possible for them to survive coronavirus once it enters the camps. Refugees are already some of the most vulnerable people on the planet right now. How can we protect them against coronavirus when healthcare is already at crisis point? This is a question which is incredibly concerning for women and girls especially.

Grant spoke to Dr Hana Pospisilova, a consultant cardiologist who volunteers at the Moria camp in Lesbos. Pospisilova is deeply concerned that the inhumane conditions could cause “[…]a pandemic breaking out”. Pospisilova told the Guardian that people cannot wash without risking their lives; “[…]they say to wash means waiting three hours and it’s risky: people have knives, and you can only have two minutes in the shower after you wait.” Women and girls also live in fear of being sexually abused. In 2018 Monica Costa Riba, senior campaigner on women’s rights at Amnesty International’s Europe office reported on the daily dangers women face in Greek refugee camps. Riba mentions a woman who lived in Vathy camp on Samos and told Amnesty that “[The] shower in the camp is cold and there is no lock. Men walk in when you are inside. There are no lights in the toilets. At night, sometimes I go to the toilet with my sister or pee in a bucket”. This means hygiene, already difficult to practice, becomes more difficult with coronavirus.

Women are usually the main support for their children in families. The lack of childcare services increases the risk of coronavirus spreading. Everyday refugees are fighting for basic necessities. Pospisilova goes on to say how they are wearing the same clothes for months. Children have scabies but they cannot be treated without washing. What is even more concerning in relation to the coronavirus is that Pospisilova is concerned about respiratory problems. At the time the article was published it was winter, so people were sleeping in wet tents and waiting hours to collect food in terribly cold temperatures.

Exactly one month later on 11th March 2020 an article was published by Grant titled ‘Lesbos coronavirus case sparks fears for refugee camp’ with the news that there had been a case of coronavirus on Lesbos. The week leading up to the article’s publication doctors’ and journalists’ had been ‘attacked by a group of vigilantes’ because tensions were rising and anger was taking root due to migrants arriving in an already severely overcrowded camp. This led to vital care provided Médecins San Frontiéres (MSF) to close for two days but this inevitably meant that on reopening they became overwhelmed with too many patients to care for. The lack of essential items and healthcare access poses an insurmountable risk to peoples’ lives.

Image: Tessa Kraan/BRF

The Guardian published an Observer special report – ‘A doctor’s story: inside the ‘living hell’ of Moria refugee camp’ – on 9th February 2020. The very phrase ‘living hell’ is telling of the severe healthcare crisis and the phrases ‘riot squads clashed’, ‘harrowing account of life’ and ‘crowds of migrants’ in the byline begs for its audience to pay attention. Annie Chapman is a doctor who recently worked with the Boat Refugee Foundation. Chapman states that the camp was built for 3,100 people. It is hard to imagine that there are now more than 20,000. BRF provides emergency medical care across the camp; there is no other. Even trying to stay warm is life-threatening. Chapman treated two children who were rushed to the BRF because they had been sitting by a fire and were unconscious due to the carbon monoxide after sitting around it ‘for a sustained period of time.’ After detailing specific serious cases Chapman writes ‘This is not abnormal. This is daily.’ Violence is daily. Fear is consistent. Calling this a crisis cannot even begin to describe the inhumanity of these conditions which refugees are fighting to live through.

‘The suffering is palpable, the hopelessness is insidious’ – Annie Chapman

With the hashtag #sosmoria across social media. Doctors are urging EU leaders to recognise a state of emergency in order to protect refugees in Greece against coronavirus. In a video published by the UNHCR’s YouTube channel on 19th February 2020, Sardar, a 41-year-old doctor who fled Afghanistan with his wife and children, speaks of life in the Moria camp: ‘Life in the camp is not acceptable for everyone[…]they have toilet, bathroom, for, I think, 3,000[…]If you want to go toilet, it takes hours to wait for the toilet.’According to Chapman, due to the fear of sexual abuse, many women and children wear nappies when darkness falls to avoid the fearful journey to the toilet; the camp is pitch-black. There has been no ‘reliable’ electricity for two months. Sardar goes on to say that ‘The medical care is very poor because of the overcrowding.’ Sometimes they have to return home without water. It also takes hours to queue for food. In this video, Sardar was the 3525th person in line. We need to work together to defeat coronavirus and spreading awareness on social media is one thing we can do to help.

In a time like this, the importance of the work that women and girls are doing cannot be emphasised enough. It is imperative that we spread awareness of the devastating impact that coronavirus is having on refugee women and girls, but we must also spread awareness of the positive work they are doing to create a safer and healthier community. This year for World Health Day the UNHCR published an article on how women and girls in refugee communities are helping to make the camps a healthier place. They celebrate the vital ways that women and girls are doing this and the immense responsibility of this in relation to coronavirus. Refugee girls walk for hours to collect water from safe water sources. This water is crucial for good hygiene which will ultimately prevent illness. One incredible way that women are making a difference is through making soap to help Syrian refugees at the Za’atari refugee camp. You can see a video of the women making the soaps by clicking here.

On 18th March 2020 Help Refugees posted a message on their blog which also provides some light in a situation that only appears to be getting darker. Help Refugees are a charity who work in refugee camps in Bosnia, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Serbia, UK, Lebanon and Turkey. They provide local organisations and help them with funding, material aid or volunteers. Help Refugees are working hard to limit the spread of coronavirus such as through prioritising hygiene packs and educating about the importance of hand washing. They are carefully making sure to work with government policy, which is thankfully enabling them to continue providing basic, essential items such as food, water, and safe places to sleep. Incredibly, the partners that Help Refugees are working with are adapting to provide remote psychosocial support, education and children’s entertainment. Help Refugees are truly inspiring. In the midst of dire headlines raising concern for the health and wellbeing of refugees, I am finding hope in the persistent effort of Help Refugees. It is vital more than ever before that we support this amazing charity in addition to all other NGOs who are working so hard to provide care, love and support.

‘Coronavirus knows no borders, Neither does love’ – Help Refugees

 

This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is a volunteer 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.