If we ever doubt we are in many ways connected to people in far away places, let’s have a look at the labels of clothes we are wearing. Hand wash cold, they say, Do not bleach. They also say Made in Nicaragua, Made in India, Made in Bangladesh, Made by Exploitation. Well, not this last one, otherwise we wouldn’t buy them and the ever-fattening corporations would go bust. That’s not exactly in their business plans, so they choose to omit this bit of information.
But the painful truth is still there. If you asked me some time ago, I would have said that fashion victims are those who can’t live without the latest Louis Vuitton bag (the “god forbid last season!” attitude). But when I dug a bit deeper I realized how mistaken I was. The real fashion victims are millions of workers who produce garments for clothes-hungry consumers in rich countries. They work long hours in appalling conditions, are intimidated and bullied and threatened, denied their rights and paid almost nothing. On their visit to factories in Bangladesh, the initiative War on Want found that a monthly salary for 48 weekly hours of work before overtime was on average less than £20. This means just under 7p (~8 Euro cents) an hour, says the campaign’s report Fashion Victims II. 7p an hour! This is outrageous.
Labour Behind the Label (LBL) describes the situation as “a real horror story”. This systematic exploitation, they say, is found in almost every factory, workshop and living room in which garments are manufactured. “Workers across the world face a daily grind of excessive hours, forced overtime, lack of job security, poverty wages, denial of trade union rights, poor health, exhaustion, sexual harassment and mental stress,” LBL says. Modern slavery, with a fashion touch.
Many high street brands have acknowledged the problem but failed to work hard enough to get rid of it. War on Want says the companies are simply unwilling to sacrifice their profits for the sake of ethical standards. The consumer-generated “fast fashion” means that catwalk clothes reach stores soon after Fashion Weeks, if only to be bought for kopecks and to be thrown away after being worn once or twice. This puts a great pressure on suppliers, who in turn pass it on to workers. They have to make more clothes in less time, for the same shameless pay. And who profits from this? Well the brands, of course! LBL report Let’s clean up fashion 2009 shows that workers’ wages represent only 0.5-1.5% of the item’s retail price. Around 75% go to the retailer, and almost 24% for other expenses.
So are we expected to boycott the sinner brands (which include H&M, Gap, Zara, Marks&Spencer, Primark, Nike, Adidas, Tesco… and many more)? Not until the workers in garment-producing countries ask as so, says LBL. Boycott would mean workers losing their jobs, which they can’t afford no matter how degrading and discriminating they are. And also, so many retailers have sinned that it wouldn’t make a big difference to buy from one and not from another.
Yet, what can we do? Act! Join the campaigns to put pressure on retailers and governments to take workers’ rights overseas seriously, just like they do at home. LBL and War on Want have various petitions to sign, such as the Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops campaign. And reduce our consuming habits – that helps the environment, too.