The Fabric Social chats with legendary Bangladeshi organiser Nazma Akter for Fashion Revolution Week.
It’s been 4 years since the Rana Plaza disaster that took the lives of more than one thousand women - most of them young women. While feminist sentiment is on the rise, and on the runways - the industry that employs women, and sells to women, still wholeheartedly fails to benefit women. Make no mistake - fashion is a feminist issue.
Since the dawn of mass manufacturing, textiles and garments production has overwhelmingly been ‘women’s work. The very existence of a mass scale apparel industry hinged on unleashing the hitherto housebound labour of the female workforce, who could churn out products in return for a small stipend.
The interest in keeping women’s labour cheap is obvious, and the fact that 80 to 90 percent of garment workers across the globe are still are young, uneducated, rural migrant women is no accident. Corporate giants (and their customers) demand dirt cheap prices. In turn factory owners, managers, and labour recruiters seek out poor, young women for their nimble fingers, good eyesight, and the convenience of a workforce that lacks a political voice.
In the years since Rana Plaza, Fashion Revolution week has marked the date and created an opportunity for an industry-wide state of the union. I started my own ethical fashion label with an explicitly feminist mission, and we are just a small part of a happily growing segment of the larger fashion market. Big-boys like H&M are setting ambitious agendas that could revolutionise the way business is done, while most of the industry is still structured to respond to consumer demand for dirt cheap products.
So what does this all mean? How deep is the positive change really? How can the revolution take root in every hidden corner of the diffuse global supply chain?
I spoke to Nazma Akter, founder and Executive Director of the AWAJ Foundation (“Voice” in Bangla) a union with over 37,000 members. Akter was just 11 years old when she started working in a Dhaka factory, 12 when she joined her first protest against factory working conditions, and in her early twenties when she founded AWAJ along with other ex-garment workers. Needless to say, she is a rebel with a cause, and understands that the garment worker movement needs to be a women’s movement.
“They are coming to Bangladesh because the labour market is cheap, and the women are cheap. In Bangladesh 85 percent of the workforce is female, and anywhere mass garments manufacturing exists - young, uneducated women are the majority of the workforce.”
But once you look beyond the factory floor - from management and union leadership through to the upper levels of government, women are a rare sight.
“Men say (women) do not have leadership qualities, but what we don’t have is respect or access. Even within the trade union movement, women are members, and men are in leadership positions. This is a women’s workforce, and women need to be making the decisions.”
It took the needless deaths of more than one thousand mostly female garment workers in 2013 to really shake things up in Bangladesh. Mass protests, and very bad publicity for the brands found amongst the rubble led to the legally binding Bangladesh Accord, and major shifts in labour rights in the country. Aktar tells me there has been measurable change on the ground - workers are unionising, and union-run factories are popping up in place of factories that were closed after the Accord. But change is not fast enough or deep enough to address the scale of the problem:
“The scale of this change shouldn’t be overstated. Unfair labour practices, exploitation and abuses are still common in Bangladesh, and all over the world. A living wage still does not exist. Displacement, environmental degradation, malnutrition, education - these are all big problems.”
The hard truth is, as long as women are denied rights, and continue to be considered second class citizens - there will only be so much that can change.
But picking up and moving manufacturing back to buying countries in the West is not a solution either. As Akter states, “the garments industry is very important to manufacturing countries - these are all poor countries.”
Women’s livelihoods and the entire shape of economies have become intimately bound up in garments. In the course of a few decades, tens of millions of young women have migrated from rural agriculture work to urban factory work - and their labour is a significant contributor to export revenue in their home countries. As noted by the Baptist World Aid 2016 Fashion Report - “The fashion industry is playing a substantial role in reshaping nations.” Entire economies have been built upon the labour of women, and it is young women who have the most to gain from centuries overdue reform of the entire sector.
But the industry is nothing if not mobile - and has proven time and again that it will abandon ship if labour becomes too costly, and simply seek out more deplorable conditions elsewhere. And perhaps one of the reasons substantial change has yet to come, is precisely because women’s progress across the world has a been so uneven - and because in a globalised world, truly global solidarity is hard to achieve. There is always another patriarchal capitalist economy hungry for investment, and an untapped labour force of poor, uneducated, young women to exploit.
Akter understands the sheer scale of the problem, and agrees that solidarity is the key:
“This is a global issue. We need to consider the whole supply chain - from the cotton growing fields to the final production. We need solidarity, and we need to take global action to address the global nature of this problem. You can buy clothes cheaper than a coffee or a snack - and that kind of buying behaviour has to change.”
This is the sentiment of Fashion Revolution - to show solidarity with the women who lost their lives in Rana Plaza, with the tens of millions of garment workers across the globe - and make better choices.
As long as good intentions continue to simultaneously exist with insane cost pressures and ever higher volume demands, the situation cannot substantially change. So long as consumers keep buying so much, for so little, corporates will continue to base their business models on making more things more cheaply, and manufacturers will keep subcontracting any notion of labour standards out of existence. If we don’t demonstrate genuine solidarity with women workers everywhere they are, there will always be another economy for business to turn to, like Akter says - “if buyers move from Bangladesh to Myanmar, from Myanmar to some other country, will exploitation stop? No it won’t, and that is why a global movement is so important.” It is us that needs to change.
Our purchasing power has the power to change business models, and business has the power to work with suppliers and with governments to change conditions on the ground. Evidence tells us this is true, but first we need to care. When feminism has never been more in vogue, and brands have never been more willing to tap into your political persuasions - take genuine political action and make the contents of your closet an act of solidarity. Look behind the label, and demand a transparent supply chain, and safe, decent jobs for the women that make your clothes.
Sharna is the Co-Founder of The Fabric Social, a social enterprise working with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here.