In its most recent publication, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance termed the harm inflicted on garment workers as the “garment industrial trauma complex.” We’re here to unpack this new sociological term and why it’s important in the fight for fair wages and feminism.
What the ‘feminisation of labour’ means
The wellbeing of garment workers has never been a priority in the broader fashion industry’s supply chains. New research highlights just how harmful the industry is to underpaid and exploited garment workers, the majority of whom are women of colour.
In the fashion lexicon, “offshoring” is understood as the transfer of garment manufacturing from wealthier Western nations to low- and lower-middle income countries (LMIC) for the sake of profit. This practice began decades ago, with the fall of powerful labour unions in places like the US and the rise of globalisation. Consequently, women workers have entered the industrial workforces of production countries at ever higher rates.
Several studies have documented this phenomenon, termed the “feminisation of labour.” This term is not only used to define the sharp increase in women’s labour force participation in industrial sectors but also to underscore the deteriorating nature of such employment. For these women, work is increasingly precarious and unpredictable. This makes the links clear between the wellbeing of women and the impacts of globalisation, and underscores why we can’t address these problems only as structural or economic problems. Justice for garment workers means grappling with the patriarchy and post-colonial systems of power.
The 'feminisation of labour' defines the sharp increase in women’s labour force participation in industrial sectors and underscores the nature of employment as increasingly precarious and unpredictable.
In theory, this new manufacturing strategy promised opportunities for women in recently industrialised nations, including better wages, independence, and development. But power imbalances remained, and cheap labour became the name of the game, with wages and conditions continuously diminishing to meet demand in wealthy Western countries. It’s a system that repeats the same patterns of colonialism, with colonial powers in countries like Europe, America, and Australia profiting off the exploitation of colonised countries.
The reality is appalling. A Stitch in Time Saves None by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) explained earlier this year that while the global garment industry has promised to reduce poverty and uplift the status of women, in reality, it has delivered rock-bottom wages, extreme hours, and unsafe, often violent conditions to meet these pressures felt throughout the supply chain.
To make matters worse, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, global apparel brands cancelled billions of dollars worth of placed orders, refused to pay for completed goods, delayed payments for months, demanded deep discounts, and refused to contribute to outstanding wages and legally mandated compensation owed to workers. (Good On You updated our brand rating methodology in 2020 to incorporate wellbeing of workers and fair payment throughout the pandemic as components of our “people” score.)
How COVID-19 exacerbated current imbalances
Unsurprisingly, when COVID-19 hit, asymmetrical power relations between brands and suppliers enabled many brands to shirk accountability to workers in their supply chains. This led to widespread wage theft, informalisation, job insecurity, and work intensification, which became particularly pronounced during the pandemic-induced recession. This has had devastating impacts on women garment workers and their families.
The alarming report by AFWA directly links the rise in gender-based violence and harassment during the pandemic to the purchasing practices of international fashion brands.
The report by AFWA, which makes for alarming reading, directly links the rise in gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) during the pandemic to the purchasing practices of international fashion brands, including American Eagle, Bestseller, C&A, Inditex, Kohl’s, Levi’s, Marks & Spencer, Next, Nike, Target, Vans/VF Corporation, and Walmart. As a result, AFWA now terms the harm inflicted on garment workers the “garment industrial trauma complex.”
What is the garment industrial trauma complex?
According to AFWA, the garment industrial trauma complex is a type of economic harm that is fuelled by corporate greed and the feminisation of labour, which directly contributes to a complex web of trauma from verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. This intersects with heightened health-related anguish, and extreme economic-based anxiety that leads to embodied trauma.
AFWA highlights the significance of acknowledging women’s lived bodies as navigating power and systems of gender domination and bringing attention to violence against women.
Mental health and its relationship to working conditions has gained increased attention in recent years, such as the harmful impacts of demanding job requirements and low control over the work process, work intensification, heightened performance pressures, bullying and harassment, and the use of fragmented tasks and extractive work targets.
Taking inspiration from feminist literature, the sociological term stresses the importance of acknowledging the lived experiences of women facing violence as “embodied,” highlighting the significance of women’s material, lived bodies as navigating power and systems of gender domination and bringing attention to violence against women.
Getting involved and staying informed
Talking about gender-based violence can be triggering and heavy, but it must be brought to light. It’s an overwhelming and complex web of issues. If you’re wondering where you can get involved, we encourage you to start within your own communities and with your own skills. For example, if you’re interested in signing a petition, this #PayYourWorkers one helps support garment workers. If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this guide on 11 essential documentaries about the textile industry. And most importantly, we encourage you to feel empowered to reach out to your local legislators: call, email, and petition them to support fair wages and blocklist countries that don’t comply with basic labour standards.