What role does advertising play in journalism? Who funds and controls media coverage? Why is representation so important? How are stereotypes produced and reproduced through the media? Does the medium that we use consume information matter?
And, what does any of this have to do with responsible fashion?
The Listening Post has produced a series of short animated films introducing five media theorists: Roland Barthes, Noam Chomsky, Stuart Hall, Marshall McLuhan, and Edward Said. Media Theorised is a project that calls for a critical engagement with the media, and is a nice resource to share with friends, colleagues and students.
Many of the entanglements highlighted by these theorists are brought to the surface through the project itself, with respect to how it is shared and consumed, and all of these tensions would make great topics for further discussion: for example, the fact that I am sharing this content with you through a blog post on an English-language website; that the Media Theorized project was itself developed by a media network (Al Jazeera), and that each video has little Google advertisements that pop-up, and sometimes play before the video starts—a reminder of the role of advertising in media (briefly mentioned in the Noam Chomsky piece); or the fact that you may have found this post through social media, and may be reading this content on a tablet, phone or laptop.
I wanted to share the study, because I so love its presentation. It’s not very often that academic research is packaged in accessible and engaging formats. And this one was! You may have already come across it, and if you have then you know exactly what I’m talking about—it’s cool. It attempts to map factories in Bangladesh, and you can zoom in and out, and there are images, and statistics—who doesn’t love easy to digest figures? It’s very interactive, and its presentation reminded me a bit of the “The shirt on your back” interactive from The Guardian (launched on the 1 year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse). I wanted to share it with you as an example of how researchers can share findings in new and exciting ways.
The reason I didn’t share it with you is because—as usual—it’s all a bit more complicated than it seems: the research has been contested.
The study in question is “Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg: Bangladesh’s forgotten apparel workers” by Sarah Labowitz and Dorothée Baumann-Pauly. According to the researchers, there are more than 7,000 factories in Bangladesh, with more than 5 million workers. These figures are a big jump from previous stakeholder estimates, which typically cite over 3,500 factories (sometimes estimated at 4,000-4,500), with approximately 4 million workers (sometimes cited as just less than this).
Researchers at Penn State Center for Global Workers’ Rights, alongside other academics, have critiqued the report. These researchers determined that the Stern results were inflated as a result of a flawed research methodology (specifically with respect to data collection) and sought clarification. Here’s how it all went down:
So, the official numbers are being challenged, but that’s not really the main point of the critique. What the researchers have seemingly found most problematic, is Stern’s use of the iceberg analogy—with ‘tip of the iceberg’ implying that efforts underway in Bangladesh to secure building safety since Rana Plaza (Accord, Alliance and the national initiative, specifically) are only just cracking the surface.
Essentially, all of the researchers agree that factory remediation in Bangladesh post-Rana Plaza is moving far too slowly. However, the Stern researchers have argued that the sector is much, much bigger than anyone cares to admit. And in doing so, they have determined that worker safety is just barely being addressed.
Now back to that email from my colleague: how many factories? How many workers? Estimates only at the moment, I’m afraid. In the end, I directed her to recent(ish) ILO figures (see here, for example).
It’s crucial to remember that the entire industry has trouble with numbers, not just Bangladesh. Accurate data on global fashion and apparel production is difficult, because so many of its moving parts (and people) remain out of sight.
Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on modern slavery at the University of Edinburgh. We know garment work ≠ modern slavery in and of itself. But we also know that working conditions in fashion and apparel supply chains can sometimes mirror that of modern slavery. And we know that forced labour exists in this system. At Social Alterations we work to support rigorous research, and we want that research to be sensitive to, and respectful of, context. Because it has to be. The workers’ perspectives are those that matter and are those that should be prioritised.
But research also needs to be open and accessible, hence my original intrigue with the Stern interactive site. This is just one of the reasons we’re supporting research initiatives like Safia Minney’s Kickstarter project: Slave to Fashion. Check it out, and get involved if you can.
 It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time research out of Stern on the garment sector in Bangladesh has been questioned. On 22 May 2014 a group of very prominent labour and human rights academics published this open letter.
You’ve likely followed the mass faintings of garment workers that have taken place in Cambodia this year. While most reports have cited gruelling working conditions and worker exposure to toxic chemicals as likely causes, reasons for the faintings remain unclear.
Add to this a recent report out of Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, “Tearing Apart at the Seams: How Widespread Use of Fixed-Duration Contracts Threatens Cambodian Workers and the Cambodian Garment Industry.”
The report highlights an amendment to relax restrictions on fixed-duration contracts would compromise the rights of garment workers under both Cambodian and international law. As a result, the authors advise the government not to amend the current labour law.
“The Cambodian government has been considering amending the labor law to ease restrictions on fixed-duration contracts. The country’s apparel industry is already facing heightened international scrutiny because of the mass firings of workers who participated in a strike last year over low wages. One of the main competitive advantages of the Cambodian garment industry is its reputation for progress on protecting workers’ rights, so it is important to understand the human rights consequences of using FDCs and the impact that permitting their expansion could have on Cambodia’s competitiveness.” (James Silk, director of the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic)
While we wait to learn how all of this will continue to play out, we thought we’d leave you on a positive note, and (re)draw your attention to an important health and safety education initiative we posted on our Facebook page a couple of weeks ago: The ILO-BFC’s Garment Workers Open University 2011.
“Each Sunday, nearly 500 workers, from 20 garment factories, attended a full-day training to learn some basic knowledge about the Cambodian Labour Law, and obtain information about social protection services available to them.” (ILO-BFC)
Since 1993, more than 1,400 women have been violently murdered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (Maquila Solidarity Network). Thousands more remain missing. These femicides have gone unsolved since the murders have not been properly investigated by local and/or international authorities. While the found bodies of women rest buried in mass graves, the killers roam free. Ciudad Juarez is a war-zone— no one is protected from the systemic violence and corruption that plagues its citizens.
In 2010 MAC cosmetics and American design house Rodarte partnered to deliver a limited edition line of cosmetics inspired by the plight of the Juarez woman. Products in the line were given names like “Factory” and “Ghost Town” and advertisements featured a young model looking…well, dead.
Despite being well received by industry, outcry from within the fashion blogosphere resulted in the cancelation of the line. As one commentator stated in response to the collection, “in a sweep of total insouciance, for chic U.S. women, ‘Factory’ is an abstract consumable concept, a shade of mint frost, whereas for Mexican women in maquiladoras, it’s a sweaty, oppressive place where they’re frequently harassed, threatened, raped, and killed.” (Sarah Menkedick) Both MAC and Rodarte have since issued apologies, with the cosmetics company promising to donate profits from the line (once it has been renamed) to a legitimate organization working within the region. There is still no word on these details, however.
Of course, women are not the only victims in Juarez. The city is home to one of the largest drug turf wars in the world. In the last four years, more than 8,000 people have been killed (averaging 8 murders per day). Last week alone, between Thursday and Saturday, 53 people were gunned down (NPR).
Set to profit from the violence this summer through the release of their new game Call of Juarez: The Cartelis the French video game company Ubisoft, There has already been outcry over the game, with critics claiming it dehumanizes victims. No apology fromUbisoft; they claim the game is purely fictional—take a look at the trailer and see for yourself.
Despite the violence and controversy surrounding this socially devastated region, some companies have decided to (re)invest in the maquiladoras there. According to Bob Cook, president of the Regional Economic Commission in El Paso, Texas, one of the draws to manufacturing in Juarez is that the violence has seemingly not targeted industry.
The violence has not targeted industry? Are factory workers not included in this category?
When the mass killings of women (it is estimated that over 1/3 of these women were working in maquiladoras) first surfaced over a decade ago, industry did little to protect workers, claiming it was not their responsibility because the attacks did not take place on their property.
“Maquila owners provide little help to resolve the infrastructure and social services crisis in Juárez that they helped create. In 2001 at the height of the factories’ prosperity, their owners gave Juárez only $1.5 million in a voluntary tax, according to the New Mexico State University-based research publication Frontera Norte-Sur. At the same time, according to the Canadian organization Maquila Solidarity Network, maquila exports from the Juárez region totaled more than $10 billion.” (Amnesty International USA)
To say that industry needs to step it up when dealing with Juarez would be an understatement.
The 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD) has come and gone (March 8th). With this year’s theme, equal access to education, training and science and technology: pathway to decent work for women, we remember the women and men of Juarez.
An excerpt from the controversial corrido “Las mujeres de Juaréz” by popular Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte:
Que hay varias miles de muertas en panteones
clandestinos muchas desaparecidas que me resisto
a creer… (es el reclamo del pueblo
que lo averigüe la ley….)
English translation: There are several thousand dead women, in secret cemeteries. So many women have disappeared, it is hard to believe. These people demand that the law must investigate. (Mariana Rodriguez, “¡SOMOS MÁS AMERICANOS!”: The music of Los Tigres del Norte as Grass Roots Activism)
The fashion industry is often seen as a complicated paradox. So much so that many professionals working in the field of worker rights and environmental security frequently shy away from using the word ‘fashion’ itself. In its place, they vote for ‘garment,’ ‘apparel,’ ‘textile,’ etc. While it’s natural for industry jargon to vary—different circles will have their own set of terminology—it is important to recognize that in the end we are all talking about the same thing: fashion.
Fashion, after all, designs the stage and sets the pace for the performance. For our part, if we cannot connect human and environmental security issues taking place within the industry’s supply chain to the fashion runway, we haven’t dug deep enough.
We were reminded further of this truth this week with a recent Ethical Style post on the special NYPD ‘fashion’ police slated for New York Fashion Week. According to the article, the plain clothed officers are placed amongst the crowd (positioned on either side of the runway), to keep the peace from anti-fur activist protesters.
Continuing our coverage on Bangladesh, we’ve been meaning to write a story on the government’s reported consideration of a special “industrial police,” dedicated to keeping workers in the ready made garment (RMG) sector in line with an “iron hand,” according to a newspaper in Bangladesh (Clean Clothes Campaign).
So, on either side of the supply chain, the industry flexes its muscles against unrest. But, when it comes to the systemic oppression of basic human rights, coupled with unchecked environmental degradation, whose interests are being protected?
The truth is, when it comes to security there is no real paradox—the violations may be clear as mud, but we know where there are and how they got there.
A Bangladeshi police slaps the face of a suspected protester during a clash with garment workers at Mirpur, Dhaka. Photo: Abir Abdullah/EPA via The Guardian
Let’s go back one year to July 2009. The world economic downturn was in full swing. In Ashulia, a major manufacturing center just outside of Dhaka, clashes were raging as “tens of thousands” of garment workers were protesting sudden wage cuts and unpaid salaries. The protests began in late June and continued into July as they escalated in intensity with 2 workers dead, many injured, one case of factory arson and numerous incidents of vandalism. The industry website Yarns and Fibers Exchange reported that:
Spectators and workers watch as cloud of smoke billows out of the burning Ha-Meem Group complex at Narasinghapur in Ashulia. PHOTO: Shafiqul Alam / The Daily Star
The government’s response to these protests was a crackdown for fear of a loss of business. In 2008, Bangladesh was one of the largest garment exporters in the world, second only to China. This event, among others, provided even more pressure on the government to accept a proposal for the formations of an industrial police which had been on the table for a while.
According to official records released in August 2009, Bangladeshi garment exports had reached an all time high in the previous fiscal year as the country became more competitive due to the economic crunch. While the industry became competitive within the global market, manufacturers still had to compete within the national market. As a result, manufacturers engaged in what has been described as a price war in an attempt to attract orders. Because of this price war, industry insiders claim that they had to cut prices by 20% which decreased their profit margins. But since many of the manufacturing companies are privately owned, fiscal data is not public and therefore these claims cannot be verified.
During the month of Ramadan (August 22-September 20), workers became restless once more as they demanded back pay, unpaid allowances and their Eid bonuses. Reports on this are confusing and I don’t know which side is telling the truth. The New Nation published two articles that reported the following:
Either way, the industry demanded 30 billion Taka (~US$430,725,047) of government aid for the payment of wages and Eid bonuses by September 7th, 2009, complaining that the industry is struggling because the economic crisis caused a decrease in the number of orders. This demand was rejected by the Finance Minister and later withdrawn by the BGMEA as an ‘error’. BDNews24.com reported that the union deadline for payment (September 16th) was ignored as some factories shut down for the Eid holiday without paying wages and bonuses. It is unclear whether this was a widespread problem or not.
A man attempts to throw a burning mattress while others pelt policemen with stones and brickbats during a clash between agitating garment workers and law enforcers in Tongi yesterday. Photo: Amran Hossain / The Daily Star
In January 2010, Touhidur Rahman, President of Bangladesh Poshak Shilpa Shramik Federation, told the The New Nation that a written demand for the formation of a wages commission was submitted on December 12th. Salahuddin Swapan, President of Bangladesh Biplobi Garment Shramik Federation, claimed that the government had repeatedly assured them that a wages commission would be formed immediately to review the minimum wages of RMG workers. He added that:
According to Bangladeshi labour law, wages are to be reassessed and adjusted every 3 years. The last time that had happened was October 2006 meaning that the government was long over due. January also saw further isolated clashes with 2 dead and numerous injuries. The first wage commission meeting was held on January 24th but the BGMEA representative was absent leaving factory owners open to criticism that they were stalling the process. BGMEA president Abdus Salam Murshedy informed The New Nationthat considering economic conditions, it was “impossible” for factories to pay higher wages and suggested that the government step in and provide workers with subsidies on necessities.
Garment workers shout slogans as they block a street in Dhaka. Photo: Andrew Biraj/Reuters via The Guardian
retailers were paying lower prices than before for Bangladeshi products. The retailer perspective was also in the news in March as France 24 reported that Bangladesh is “too cheap for comfort for some brands” explaining that the letter sent in January included Walmart, H&M, Carrefour and Levi Strauss.
Other brands like Zara, JC Penny, Uniqlo, Tesco and Marks & Spencer have decided to forgo the middlemen and created their own liaison offices in Dhaka to “keep an eye on the conditions in which their branded goods are produced.” On the other hand, factory owners claim that the ‘concern’ of the retailers is a stunt pointing out that retailers have slashed order prices in response to low global demand. Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, a factory owner and “vice president of the country’s leading exporters group” was quoted in the report complaining that:
Police say thousands of workers clashed with security forces at Ashulia via BBC
In another article in The Daily Star, BGMEA president Murshedy pointed out that the letter sent by retailers failed to mention unit prices and a need for an increase in order prices. According to him, operation costs have increased by 25% over the past year but his order prices remain the same.
At the same meeting, a BGMEA representative was present and stated that the industry was being held hostage by “10 to 12 so called labour leaders.” It is unclear whether any of the “so called labour leaders” were present at this meeting. However, they were present at the second wage board meeting that took place in April during which the board requested that detailed reports from both sides of the issue. A statement made by the Minister of Labour and Manpower, Mosharraf Hossain, to the AFP promised a wage hike within 3 months. This promise came as large-scale clashes rocked the country and labour unrest was no longer an isolated incident.
In June, large-scale protests continued and the world finally began to take notice.
The numbers were small at first and increased quickly from 8,000 workers in Jamgarh district of Ashulia to 50,000 workers in Ashulia industrial area. Clashes with government security forces were fierce as reports of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons were disseminated. Many factories shut down for a short time fearing vandalism and violence. The local police chief stated that protesters blocked a key highway, ransacked factories, fired live rounds and threw rocks. These events were accompanied by a threat of a nation-wide wage-hike campaign. The BGMEA responded with an appeal to workers:
In mid-July, the New York Times published an article entitled Bangladesh, With Low Pay, Moves in on China, in it, Li & Fung, one of the largest sourcing companies in the world, explained that they had increased their production in Bangladesh by 20% in the past year while decreasing production in China by 5%. The article also discussed the wage issue with factory owners arguing that a big increase of wages will make them less competitive not just against China but also against other cheap labour countries like Vietnam and Cambodia because those countries have better infrastructure and productivity levels. The article ends with a foreshadowing statement by factory owner and former head of an unspecified Bangladeshi garment industry trade group, Anisul Huq:
Garment worker Kulsi Begum, 20, shares this room with two other workers. They pay 1,500 taka rent a month, which is a large part of their 1,662 taka monthly salary. August 2009, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Taslima Akhter / Clean Clothes Campaign
In February 2010, the Bangladesh Garments Workers Unity Council, a federation of Bangladeshi garment worker organizations, submitted a list of 5 demands to the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA). These demands are:
Social Alterations has put together a visual message to the workers and others involved. Bangladeshi garment workers need our support to increase their hourly wage. By uploading your photo and message, you are not only allowing these workers to see your face, but you are also empowering them with the simple statement that you can see them, and that they are not alone.
The United Nations defines extreme poverty as individuals living on less than a dollar a day…current minimum wages in Bangladesh sit at 11.5 cents/hour (that’s 25$ per month and less than a dollar a day).
Don’t forget to tell us where you are sending your photo from!
Not sure what to write on your sign? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
“Bangladesh needs a living wage now!”
“I support Bangladeshi garment workers!”
“ < 1.00 $/day = extreme poverty”
“Less than 1$ a day is extreme poverty: Bangladeshi garment workers deserve better”
Yet another update on forced and child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.
The Cotton Campaign continues to report on the flagrant abuse of human rights by the Uzbek government. There have been some unfortunate incidents linked to this year’s harvest (to read more about them click below) including:
The Cotton Campaign also points to an Independent World Report article on this issue that points out that Unicef, which has a significant presence in Uzbekistan, is not addressing this situation. The article also targets two major retailers, H&M and Inditex (Zara and Bershka), that are both sourcing some of their garments from suppliers in Bangladesh which in turn source some of their cotton from Uzbekistan. One of the excuses used by some brands is that it’s difficult to trace the source of a garment’s cotton. The article dismissed this excuse with a quote from Juliette Williams from the Environmental Justice Foundation:
We would like to know more about the traceability issue. Is it really as difficult as some claim? What are the factors that are preventing some brands from moving forward on this? We would like to hear from you. Please help us learn about this and leave a comment below or contact us.
Special thanks to Cassandra Cavanaugh from Cotton Campaign who let us know that Kohl’s has now joined the boycott.