Do mention the garment workers, just not only those in Bangladesh

To kick off spring/summer 2015 London Fashion Week, labour rights activists hung a banner off Waterloo Bridge that read:

“Don’t mention the garment workers”

I applaud this sarcasm and would like to add the following:

“…but if you do mention the garment workers, remember to assume they are all from Bangladesh, and that they only work in fast fashion supply chains producing product for Western fashion consumers.”

Post-Rana Plaza, Bangladesh and Bangladeshi garment workers have become the go-to default example for media to cling to whenever anything questionable comes to light regarding fashion and apparel production and consumption. Bangladesh has become THE primary example for sweatshop working conditions, a phenomenon I argue is detrimental to garment workers everywhere.

This was apparent during the 2014 World Cup, when a Western fashion consumer found a tag stitched into her Primark purchase that read “forced to work exhausting hours.” Later, a similar tag would be found by another shopper, this time reading “‘degrading’ sweatshop conditions.” A third shopper then came forward with a note that read S.O.S., this time with a message written in Chinese.

What does this have to do with the World Cup? Let me explain.

Ever heard of shop dropping? It’s a type of in-store consumer activism, where campaign materials with information related to ‘behind-the-scenes’ product details—such as labels describing social or environmental factors associated with production, for example—are strategically left for consumers to discover in-store, or later at home (examples and research related to shop dropping can be found over on the followthethings.com blog).

In fashion, it seems shop dropping is generally used to drive consumers into action by shocking them with information they can’t ignore. A potential trouble with such shock tactics, however, is that they tend not to include crucial nuanced details relating to the social, cultural, environmental and political factors located at the core of the challenges they seek to resolve.

It’s not clear if the above mentioned messages were in fact ‘shop dropped’ as a tactic to raise awareness on the working conditions of millions of garment workers worldwide. Nonetheless, the stories were picked up by international media, with (surprise!) Bangladesh most often cited in reference to poor working conditions (see just three examples here, here, and here). Thankfully, there was at least one mainstream article questioning the consequence these assumptions might have on garment workers in Bangladesh.

So, as the World Cup was in full swing, the internet was abuzz with the story of the found labels and message. Meanwhile, Cambodian garment workers producing sportswear for adidas—a FIFA World Cup sponsor—were campaigning to have their voices heard. Could you hear them over all of that Primark label noise?

The Playfair ‘All in for a Living Wage’ campaign called on adidas to support garment workers in their struggle for a living wage. The campaign featured translated personal accounts from three adidas workers, asking readers to leave questions for the workers in the comments section of the online posts.

Today marks a day of action for garment workers in Cambodia, as they take to the streets in organized protest against their wages.

So the question is, can we support these workers on this issue without compromising our support for workers elsewhere, with other, separate issues?

Of course we can!

But to do so we need to drop our assumptions related to garment work and workers immediately, and then move to understand that the social, political, economic and cultural landscapes impacting all workers everywhere are unique.

This post was written by Mary Hanlon.

Mary is a Canadian PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, researching ir/responsible fashion and apparel production and consumption. You can also find her at SocialAlterations.comM.F.Hanlon@sms.ed.ac.uk

Recommended Reading //

Merk, Jeroen. (2009) Stiching a decent wage across borders: the Asia floor wage proposal. India: Asia Floor Wage Alliance International Secretariat c/o Society for Labour and Development.

Available for download here.

Image Source: War on Want 

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