23 Jan WHEN FASHION FAILS: EXPLOITATION IN THE RETAIL INDUSTRY
First, there were the alarming reports of unfair treatment and inadequate pay of the dominantly female workforce in one of the many Bangladesh factories where ready-made garments (RMGs) are mass produced. The garments in question were Spice Girls T-shirts sold to support its “gender justice” campaign. That was two days ago. Today, reports of severe violence and protests are rousing global attention as thousands of textile workers in Bangladesh—the world’s second-largest garments exporter— protest for fairer wages in a series of protests that started on January 6th. Oblivious to the struggles of these women, retailers make incongruous demands by working on a “52 season timeline” and demanding labor to meet those goals and yet not increasing wages. Unionization and collective bargaining are highly prohibited hence the reports of multiple injuries and arrests and even the record of a death. The situation is grievously alarming and it needs to end.
The NASSA group is one of the labor groups where a worker is typically responsible for sewing up to 80 pockets an hour on women’s jeans for ZARA. The women who usually start working in the industry at 16 years old, make up 80% of the 4 million RMG (Ready Made Garments) workers in over 4,500 factories in Bangladesh. The industry has greatly contributed to the Bangladesh economy, contributing 83.49% to Bangladesh’s total exports of $36.66 billion and will play a large part in Bangladesh’s plan to move from a developing country to a middle-income country by 2021. The industry has also played a significant role in economically empowering Bangladeshi women from vulnerable socio-economic classes. Traditionally, these women worked as domestic help in people’s homes for paltry wages with almost no days off but the textiles industry provided them jobs with more dignity and the promise of economic freedom. The government refuses to approve a minimum wage average that will be congruent to their ever-growing needs and unfortunately, western retail brands as well, of which a huge component of the market is American, have refused to step up to the plate and instead, pay lip service to corporate social responsibility.
Bobita Akhter, NASSA Group. Injured in protest.
In the fashion industry where diversity is becoming a much-celebrated theme and fashion is starting to focus perceptively on more ethical ways to affect and improve lives, it is heartbreaking to see that this essential group of women-forming the basic stronghold of any successful retail brand- are so neglected. These brands seem to overlook the fact that they have a responsibility to consider the workers’ welfare and not just look to Bangladesh for cheap labor costs. On the reports of the #IWannabeaSpiceGirl Spice girl shirts(workers were paid the equivalent of 35p an hour for T-Shirts that sold £19.40 apiece), Comic Relief, the charity organization involved, has said it is “shocked and concerned” by the news. The Spice girls have issued a statement expressing their disappointment as well but so far no definite steps have been taken to nip this in the bud completely.
According to a suggestion by FLA reports, a step that could potentially bring about changes may involve having brands make sure they let workers and the public know which factories are producing for which brands. More and more companies are now disclosing where their factories are, but a vast majority of the industry, including many fast-fashion leaders, still do not publicly disclose which factories produce their branded clothes. Among them is Inditex, the company that owns Zara. This option, however, seems viable to help us hold the defectors accountable for their misdeeds. The protests may have ended quite disappointingly for this mistreated group of strong, inspiring women but the narrative can be changed to one of a better and transparent workplace that contributes to a larger, more productive and inclusive fashion industry for all. As well it should.
Images culled from ELLE, Spice Girls.