Monday 8 March 2021

Why Garment Workers Should Be the Focus of This Year’s International Women’s Day

Content warnings: sexual and gender based violence, food insecurity, murder, sexual harassment

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration – of the achievements of women, of the success of women’s rights campaigners, of the women we love and appreciate around us – but it is also a day to recognise the changes that still need to be made in terms of gender equality and to uplift the voices of the most marginalised women and other marginalised genders globally. 


The exploitation of garment workers has been an issue for decades, and has been a point of activism for many across the world for that amount of time too. And yet the issue is still as prevalent as ever, even after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013, which was the worst industrial disaster in the garment industry’s history, killing over 1,100 people and seriously injuring many more. With so much violence and exploitation still existing in the industry after such a high profile and deadly tragedy as Rana Plaza, we have to ask, why has so little change been made? 


As 80% of garment workers worldwide are women of colour aged 18-24, the treatment of garment workers is most certainly a feminist issue. 


Since the start of the pandemic, this system of exploitation has reached a boiling point, when an estimated $40 billion of garment workers’ wages was withheld by fashion brands after the closure of high streets around the world, despite the fact that many of the cancelled orders had already been partially or wholly completed. Only 2% of garment workers earn a living age, with many already in debt in order to survive and living hand to mouth. This decision by brands had potentially deadly consequences for many garment workers and their dependents, who were (and still are) facing increased food insecurity, increased exposure to violence as they find other means to survive.


Since then, over $22 billion has been recovered through efforts such as the #PayUp campaign and the many instances of garment worker union action against factory owners and the brands they supply. 


Many brands are still to pay for orders made in March, including Peacocks, Boohoo and ASOS (for outstanding Arcadia payments), Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret and Urban Outfitters. 


In addition to large scale incidents of structural violence, such as Rana Plaza or the lack of payment during the pandemic, many garment workers also face serious sexual and gender based violence in the workplace. This includes sexual harassment by often male managers, being forced into sex with managers in order to keep their jobs, and targeted intimidation.  In January 2021, a young garment worker called Jeyasre Kathirvel was raped and murdered after months of sexual harassment by her supervisor in a factory in India supplying H&M. What happened to Jeyasre is not an anomaly. Gender based violence is embedded in this industry, as it relies on the exploitation of the black and brown women to turn a profit and create billionaire (mostly male) CEOs. 


This issue is not just one that affects marginalised genders outside of the UK. Slave labour allegations have been held against garment factories in Leicester for over a decade, with many reports being released since 2010, most recently in a report by Labour Behind the Label on the illegal and unethical practices of Boohoo suppliers in Leicester since during the first UK national lockdown. 


In fact, it recently came out that there will soon be a potential ban of Boohoo imports into the US due to the slave labour within their supply chains – a major move which will likely have serious implications for Boohoo and other brands if this is not acted upon. Boohoo now take up an estimated 60-80% of all garments produced in Leicester factories, so they are a clear perpetrator of this violence. Not only is it highly likely that women make up the majority of the garment workers in Leicester, the report by Labour Behind the Label also gave evidence that migrant workers make up an estimated 33.6% of garment workers in Leicester. 


Garment workers, although often portrayed as passive victims, are standing up for their rights, protesting and striking, and are at the heart of the movement for a fairer fashion industry for both people and planet. As citizens and people who wear the clothes they make, we must stand in solidarity with garment workers – to demand that brands who rely on their labour pay the women who make their clothes the wages they are owed, in addition to sharing the profits they have made over the course of the pandemic, and ensuring their workers are treated with respect. 


To hold brands accountable, sign the #PayUp petition to send a message of solidarity into the inboxes of fashion CEOs. 

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