brands celebrate international women's day, but they're still oppressing women workers

As fashion brands cash in on the women’s day hype with feminist slogan T-shirts, ethical label founder Sophie Slater of Birdsong asks who made those clothes, and who is making the money?

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Mar 8 2018, 12:34pm

This year will mark 110 years since the protest of 15,000 women garment workers in New York City, sparking events that went on to become International Women’s Day. The upswell of activism surrounding International Women’s Day has grown year on year. With #MeToo popularised by glamorous movie stars and global politicians, WOW Festival drawing in more crowds than ever in London, marginalised women and non binary folks finally getting more visibility and voice, IWD feels more exciting than ever.

With online magazine galleries full of “What feminist tees to wear this IWD” and shops full of merchandise with cookie cutter feminist messaging, it’s easy to forget origins of the day. In recent years, IWD has become almost like a feminist Christmas. Brands are dining out on cool credentials and working with amazing activists on the consumer end of their campaigns. But can they really be working in the spirit of the day when they’re still exploiting women in the global south?

There are a bunch of ethical brands, mine included, that are putting together cute limited edition T-shirts, genuinely amazing messages, and donating profits, all in the name of empowering women. What what about the labour behind the label? If it’s not clear and transparent who made the outfits, unfortunately we have to learn not to trust that it wasn’t made in oppressive conditions.

The co-option of political ideas by corporations for ‘cool points’ is nothing new. When being “woke” is the latest trend, big brands are scrambling to pick up points from increasingly savvy customers. And among the people working behind these campaigns are intelligent, culture-changing creatives. We’re all being drawn to ideas that encourage, at face level, genuine progress. It’s only when we consider who’s still at the top of the chain -- and the exploitation at the bottom, that we can consider the painful irony of commemorating International Women’s Day with clothes perhaps made by the hands of women working in horrendous conditions.

"It’s easier to accidentally scroll 365 days back on Insta and find out what primary school your ex’s new girlfriend went to than to gather any semblance of how ethical a T-shirt is."

But digging deeper to find out how and where the big high street brands are manufacturing, and how much they pay garment workers, is a tough job for even the most committed internet sleuth. It’s easier to accidentally scroll 365 days back on Insta and find out what primary school your ex’s new girlfriend went to than to gather any semblance of how ethical a T-shirt is. There’s usually a vague statement about “trying their best” or “doing what they can”, along with some anti modern-day slavery statements. Is not exploiting people through slave labour the standard we should aiming for? In the words of a favourite meme, the bar is so low we’re tripping over.

One high street fashion brand’s latest IWD campaign has truly great promises, including a diverse range of unretouched models, and a profit donation to a local women’s charity. I asked a few people from their team if they could shed more light on the labour behind the label, but they didn’t respond.

Out of an estimated 40 million garment workers worldwide, 90% are women and girls. When I started working on Birdsong the idea was that working with us enriched the lives of the craftswomen behind our label. It was no coincidence that the concepts of ‘ethical’ and ‘feminist’ came together under one brand. Feminism, fashion and workers rights have been threads of the same narrative since the start.

The western tradition of IWD started out because of resistance from working class, garment-making women. Yet, as we celebrate our advanced rights, women with less privilege struggle with worse still working conditions, where defying abusive line managers, unionising and striking put their careers at risk.

Started mainly by low-income Jewish shirtmakers in the garment district of New York City, the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 was inspired by the labour movements popping up either side of the century. Lead by Ukrainian-American visionary Clara Lemlich, and the newly formed International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, 15,000 women workers went on strike to fight for better pay, hours and working conditions. In the years that followed, the UN introduced the idea of an International Women’s Day to commemorate the hard won rights these workers had fought for. If workers’ rights and strikes were the first tenets of socialism, then the right for women to lead enriching, empowering public lives, working and living without fear of sexual violence, is the fight that sparked this publicly celebrated breed of feminism.

"The western tradition of IWD started out because of resistance from working class, garment-making women. Yet, as we celebrate our advanced rights, women with less privilege struggle with worse still working conditions."

Today’s garment protesters aren’t afforded the luxury of being named and commemorated. Most case studies are conducted in secrecy, under false monikers to protect participants under the watch of factory managers looking to squash any form of uprising or unionisation.

Most people know by now that garment workers are criminally underpaid, with the average worker in Bangladesh earning the spending power equivalent of just 69p an hour, for 60 hours a week. With many workers forced to do overtime for fear of not having their short term contracts extended, when a big brand has a time sensitive order, their hourly rate gets pushed down. This means that they don’t receive their legal minimum hourly wage 64% of the time.

Huge numbers of garment workers also risk the sack for getting pregnant. One investigation alleged “that employees from 11 out of 12 factories in Cambodia reported witnessing or experiencing termination of employment during pregnancy”, leaving them few other employment options. Many women in the area are forced into garment work, as they’re “saved” by NGOs getting them out of the sex trade, only to find it lacks the same levels of income generation or autonomy.

When garment workers are surviving hand to mouth, the majority of earnings are handed over to the head of households, limiting women’s economic agency. As Lucy Siegle wrote in her 2011 exposé of the fashion industry, To Die For, “Cheap fast fashion is so often still presented as a wealth-creation scheme for poor brown people that it is frankly a wonder Primark hasn’t been given a Social Justice Award.” There’s a common idea that the offer of any work is emancipatory for women. From reading garment workers’ diaries and testimonials like those on the Fashion Revolution website, we know that in reality this is sadly just not true.

And yet, 80% of the richest people working in fashion are men. All ten of “The Top 10 Billionaires in Fashion” listed for 2017 were men, with 9/10 of them being white. These are the people who ultimately get to spend the profit, ironically, from that International Women’s Day promo tee.

“All ten of ‘The Top 10 Billionaires in Fashion’ listed for 2017 were men, with 9/10 of them being white. These are the people who ultimately get to spend the profit, ironically, from that International Women’s Day promo tee.”

A bunch of brands this year are choosing to support women with donations to empowering causes. But what do they mean by donating profit, and is this a token gesture, or genuinely transformative? When a profit margin for an online retailer is typically 50-60%, a popular brand saying they donate 8% of their profit from a £15 product works out at 60p a garment. If they shift 5000 pieces, that means £3k will go to a charity -- before it gets filtered down through overheads and admin costs. It isn’t going directly to the poorest women, who most likely made the garments, but it is perhaps better than lining the pockets of FSTE100 patriarchs.

The wages of those garment workers still usually account for a measly 1-3% of a total garment price. We need a different system of doing things -- which is why ours at Birdsong account for 15-50%. It’s hard work, but we feel like it’s a matter of principle to make it work. We need to think about why we give people employment, and why women want to work in the first place. Is it so we can all achieve economic independence, meaning in life and confidence, or as an exploitable force to provide cheap commodities?

Call me an optimist but I want to celebrate a better future for women this 8th of March. I want to feel connected to women globally, from worker to wearer. That’s why we’ll be showing the embroidery of our T-shirts, live, by Mona, at her community sewing school on a housing estate in Tower Hamlets. Mona is a real fixture of the community, and £5 from our £26 T-shirts goes to her sewing lessons for women from low income backgrounds and people with disabilities. We know this because, unlike a typical fashion supply chain that has hundreds of layers, we have direct contact with our makers.

We can’t knock the fantastic activists and consumers lining up to support these convincing campaigns. And diversity and visibility is so life-savingly important. The choice of who we work with, or who we inadvertently harm through our purchases, is a luxury most aren’t afforded under capitalism, and we retain the right to wear our hearts, and politics on our sleeves. But it’s a disappointment when the people who ultimately benefit are corporate bosses, who don’t care about workers rights or feminism as much as they do amassing their own wealth.

We celebrate International Women’s Day to mark the triumph of women’s labour movements and the improved conditions of western factory workers, but let’s be conscious of deferring that painful standard of living onto poorer women of colour in the global south. The three big beasts of colonialism, neoliberalism and capitalism owe to this situation, and we owe it to our less privileged sisters to commemorate their sacrifices, and to work to improve labour rights globally.