Fashion is one of the most labour-dependent industries because each piece of apparel must be handmade along a lengthy supply chain. 1 in 6 of the world’s workers are employed in the fashion industry and around 80% of those workers are female. This makes fashion a hot button feminist topic when we consider the implications of employing so many women in an unregulated labour market.
Every year, we collectively purchase around 80 billion pieces of new clothing globally. A McKinsey and Company study found that fashion consumption increased by 60% between 2000 and 2014 alone. To meet the demand of fast fashion’s ever-changing window displays, fashion as we know it has been increasingly reliant upon low-cost labour. Over the decades, the fashion industry has made an intentional choice to move their labour to low-income Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Here they recruit female factory workers, because of Asian women’s social and economic vulnerability.
Workers’ rights violations are commonplace in these off-shore factories. Women often feel unable to organise and advocate for themselves as a group, either due to cultural norms or strict anti-union policies within the workplace. Stories coming out of factories in Bangladesh tell us about women with bladder infections due to a lack of bathroom breaks, and managers forcing women to take the contraceptive pill. Issues like denial of maternity leave, inadequate sanitation, and sexual harassment in the workplace are amplified by the lack of a living wage.
An Oxfam 2019 report found that 0% of Bangladeshi garment workers and 1% of Vietnamese garment workers earned a living wage. This prevents workers from saving money to have a safety net while they look for alternative employment. Often, women start their daughters working in the factory as young as age ten to help feed their family, because one wage is inadequate. Being trapped in this cycle makes women increasingly more susceptible to sexual abuse because they can’t risk loss of income by reporting misconduct, with 1 in 4 Bangladeshi garment workers disclosing some form of abuse to Oxfam.
With all of this mistreatment, does that mean the only option is to boycott clothing made in low-income countries? Fortunately, the line doesn’t have to be drawn so strictly, because the industry doesn’t have to be so inherently exploitative. By improving women’s access to financial resources, work in the fashion industry could be a tool of empowerment instead of exploitation.
One of the most effective strategies in international development is to put money directly into the hands of women. The statistic is that for every one woman lifted out of poverty, she will bring seven other people over the poverty line alongside her. Good development recognises that women don’t have a knowledge or skills shortage, they just have a cash shortage.
Garment factories that offer a liveable wage and the flexibility to balance a personal life outside of work can go a long way in improving the status of women to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Fortunately, Deloitte Access Economics report for Oxfam in 2017 found that paying a living wage to workers throughout the supply chain may only increase the retail price of a garment by 1%. Similarly, researchers Hall and Wiedmann from University of Queensland and University of New South Wales found that increasing the price of clothing made in India an average of 20c per item would be enough to lift all Indian garment workers out of poverty. This makes fair working conditions a reasonable expectation for consumers.
The 2019 State of Fashion report describes a 630% increase in the use of the word ‘feminist’ in brand marketing between 2016 and 2018. The report predicts that, moving forward, consumers are increasingly looking for extended corporate social responsibility in the brands they support, with the expectation that companies will disclose their social impact. With improved awareness of women’s rights violations, feminism is the latest trend. But, happily, a trend that doesn’t seem to be going away.
Women already run a lion’s share of global businesses and make up the majority of the fashion industry, even if their work is currently informal or valued at 50% of men’s wages. There is a clear opportunity to give workers greater ownership over the garment making skills that companies are so eager to source by ensuring women, particularly women of colour, are promoted into leadership roles and included in all decision-making that concerns their livelihoods and wellbeing.
Those currently employed in the industry already know how to run their businesses, and they know what workers need. Paying a true living wage, providing adequate time off and paid leave, and ensuring strict workplace safety codes within the factory are all good starts. There are existing woman-run companies using fashion to provide fair work for women such as Dorsu in Cambodia and Mayamiko in Malawi. These companies challenge the myth that the slave-wage business model is the only way to be profitable.