Category Archives: Freedom of Association

Interview // Artist and activist Robin Pacific, TakeActionFAST campaign

As we mark the 106th anniversary of Triangle (25 March 1911), I wanted to share the work of Canadian artist and activist Robin Pacific. Since 2013 she has been working on a community project to raise awareness on the realities of work and life for garment workers in Bangladesh. In May she is launching TakeActionFAST, a labour rights campaign she has organised with partners in Bangladesh and in Canada (details below).

I first heard of Robin’s work when I was in Dhaka conducting part of my fieldwork in 2015. Recently I was lucky to connect with her and learn a bit more about her work.

Mary Hanlon:  To get started, could you tell us a bit about the F.A.S.T. campaign and how it came about?

Robin Pacific: We are now calling it TakeActionFAST (because the Heart and Stroke Foundation launched their own FAST campaign – cheeky!). In 2013 I received some funds from the Ontario Arts Council to do research on possible art projects about who makes our clothes. I turned the research into a collaborative community project and invited 30 women in groups of three to my house. I cooked for them, and gave a 10 minute talk about art, fashion, globalization, free trade and workers’ rights. Then the conversation just flowed. It was at one of these gatherings that someone came up with the idea for a logo called FAST – FAIR living wage, ADULT labour only, SAFE working conditions and No unpaid overTIME.

The idea for a campaign to tell retailers we will pay 5% more for our clothes if those conditions are met evolved over time and went through many variations. The necessity that I must go to Bangladesh if I wanted to speak on behalf of garment workers there also came about during those dinners.

MH: You’ve partnered with various sponsors and supporters. How did these partnerships come about, and how important was it for you to connect with groups in Bangladesh?

RP: This whole project has been about never giving up, and just relentlessly continuing even when it seemed there was no support. So I just kept e mailing people I heard about in Bangladesh, and at UniGlobal, and various Canadian trade unions. When they didn’t answer I emailed them again. When they still didn’t answer, I phoned them! Eventually the first trip came together. We made art with 100 garment workers represented by The Solidarity Centre/Bangladesh led by Alonzo Suson and Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Centre led by Kalpona Akter. We were very, very lucky to work with these outstanding trade unions. It was inspiring and transformative to meet young women who were risking their jobs—and sometimes their lives—to form a union.

If we hadn’t had the support of these two groups I think our visit to Dhaka would have been more or less futile.

We also were very graciously hosted at a luncheon by then Canadian High Commissioner Heather Cruden, and one of her staff suggested we connect with some survivors of Rana Plaza. This too was a profound experience, and humbling – meeting these people whose bodies and psyches were so shattered.

While in Bangladesh and after, I kept meeting artists, individuals, trade union members, members of NGOs, and I also go a little connected to the Bangladeshi community here in Toronto. All of these connections have immeasurably enriched the work I’ve done.

MH: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far?

RP: The biggest challenge I’ve faced, in a way, has been my own despair at all those points when things weren’t working out, when it seemed things would never come together. My challenge is not to take it personally and get discouraged when people aren’t interested, or reject various proposals for exhibitions, etc.

MH: As you move forward, what keeps you inspired? What scares you?

RP: What keeps me inspired is the heroism of the young women and men I met, and also the fact that I fell in love with Bangladesh, the way one does, inadvertently, with the people, the culture, even the insane traffic. I’m committed to social justice, and taking on this one issue and really working on it exclusively has kept me inspired. Also, I did put this on a long timeline. I wanted to accomplish one thing – the TakeActionFAST petition. Along the way I got to do some fun and meaningful art projects and meet so many extraordinary people.

The issue is off the radar of the media completely. This is what I call the Politics of the Aftermath. The media lurches from one disaster to the next, disaster porn as it’s been called, and no one seems to think of the long term after effects on the survivors of these horrific crises. I’m really counting on millennials to pick up the torch. I’m afraid that I’m just too much of an outlier – an artist trying to create a social justice campaign, not really encouraged by the local art world here, and a social justice activist who is an artist, so viewed skeptically, on occasion, by trade union people and activists, because I’m working alone. Everything I’m doing is hope and prayers that I can bridge these two complex communities.


If you’d like to support Robin and the campaign project, or learn more about her work and this community project, check out the project website here.

I particularly enjoyed seeing project photographs and listening to the audio recordings from interviews with workers, here.

While the campaign is live now, there will be a launch in Toronto in May. Here are the event details:

When? May 4 – May 5, 2017, 7 PM-12AM

Where? The Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. West, Toronto M6J 1H3 (at Dovercourt)


  • Online action campaign;
  • Canadian and Bangladesh bands, singers, dancers and food;
  • a pop up fashion market of indie Canadian designers;
  • a ‘Mock Sweatshop’ where participants can sew giant t-shirts with garment workers from Workers United Canada;
  • a Rana Plaza Memorial;
  • and art by and about Bangladeshi garment workers

WATCH // Modern Slavery: Are we complicit?

photo (5)


Earlier this month I was invited to participate in a panel on modern slavery at the University of Edinburgh, organised by the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

The panel addressed a lot of issues, including the (potential) impact of consumer boycotts and buycotts. I called on consumers to remember they are more than consumers, and to also consider/imagine alternative ways to support workers.

The event was recorded, and I’ve embedded it below for you to check out.

During the discussion, I mentioned a website I had used to calculate ‘how many slaves’ work for me. I mentioned this was an interesting tool to help consumers think through linkages, but also voiced concern that context was lacking. I realise that I never mentioned the actual name of the site, so in case you’re interested and not already familiar, here it is. Bangladeshi labour rights activist Kalpona Akter shared some thoughts on this tool with Design and Violence last year, here.

On the panel with me was Kathy Galloway, Head of Christian Aid Scotland, Karen Bowman, Director of Procurement at University of Edinburgh and Mei-Ling McNamara, a PhD Student in School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at University of Edinburgh. Chairing was Michelle Brown from the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

We would love to hear your thoughts on modern slavery in general, but also in the unique context of the global fashion and apparel industry. Please share in the comments, or with us on Facebook or Twitter.

Update // Cambodian garment workers battle for wage hike

A worker’s sign demanding $160/month minimum wages | Image taken at a rally by Mu Sochua, a Cambodian opposition party MP [click the photo to go to her blog].

Last week, Mary reported on the violent protests in Cambodia which included garment workers who have been demonstrating against a proposed minimum wage increase to US$100/month. The workers have asked for US$160/month which still falls short of the living wage proposed by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance [see the report entitled Latest Asia Floor Wage figure in Local Country Currencies (2012)] of KHR 1178814.60/month which is equivalent to something between US$283-294/month, depending on the exchange rate.

It is important to add that these demonstrations are not limited to wage issues. As I wrote on January 4th on the SA facebook page:

“Keep in mind that this is not just about wages but also stems from a complicated alliance between the numerous unions & the opposition party to challenge Hun Sen’s 28-year rule. This is part of an ongoing movement kickstarted by the July 2013 election which the opposition believes was rigged. They have since boycotted parliament, calling for new elections in daily rallies in Phnom Penh. And in the middle of all this politics is the fashion supply chain.

For a bit more on the background to these protests, listen to the following conversation from the CBC’s As it happens (Jan. 3rd):

Here are some updates specific to the garment industry angle of this story:

  • The protests continued over the week culminating in 5 deaths and around 40 injuries when authorities opened fire. Meanwhile, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) estimates sales losses of US$200 million and project a 30 per cent drop in orders in 2014 due to the protests. GMAC, in a press conference, condoned the military police’s reaction to protesters, and blamed striking workers for all deaths which were described as “collateral damage”.
  • Today’s news reports (see also here) confirm that the protests are suspended (for now) as unions advised workers to go back to work. Union leaders plan a meeting to regroup and rethink their protest strategy.
  • uploaded an open letter from some brands to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Cabinet of the Prime Minister, the Council of the Ministers, the Chairman of GMAC and union leaders calling for a peaceful resolution of this conflict and expressing deep concern over the violence writing further that “[o]ur primary concerns are for the security and safety of the workers employed by our suppliers and the long-term stability of the Cambodian garment industry.” The brands added “[w]e believe that the only way to resolve this dispute is to cease all forms of violence, and for stakeholders to enter into good faith negotiations, allowing workers to safely return to work without fear of repercussions as soon as possible.” Kudos to the signatory brands: H&M, Gap Inc., Inditex, Adidas Group, Puma, Levi Strauss & Co., and Columbia.
  • Finally, to add an international political economy dimension to these protests, there is a report (see also here) that details the South Korean embassy’s involvement in back channel dealings pressing the Cambodian government to protect Korean interests. South Korea was the largest investor in Cambodia in 2012.

This story is ongoing and we’ll do our best to continue the updates on a regular basis. In the meantime, keep up with events over our Fb page and our twitter feed.

Mass Faintings, Fixed-Duration Contracts and the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia Program

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.

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Fast Facts // Cambodia

The face of the Cambodian garment worker is that of a young, rural female. (Tearing Apart at the Seams, Yale Law: Pg. 8 )

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Earlier this month, while investigating the faintings, the International Labour Committee’s Better Factories Cambodia (ILO-BFC) program offered various recommendations to factories, including the obvious suggestion that they adhere to full compliance with the Cambodian Labour Law (Media Update 06-08 August 2011 “Actions Have to Be Taken to Prevent Mass Fainting”: ILO-BFC)

Speaking of the Cambodian Labour Law…

Cambodian garment workers have seen a difficult year. Back in September, guest writer Dr. Robert Hanlon informed us on how the Cambodian court was cracking down on garment worker protests. The Clean Clothes Campaign still continues to fight for the reinstatement of workers who were fired during the protests: “Over 300 Striking Garment Workers Still Victimised.”

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)

The study calls for the ILO-BFC program, along with other relevant parties, to work with stakeholders to support long-term contracts. In return, the program has stated it will investigate “how the general trend in using short term contracts can be converted in the industry wide understanding of the long term benefits of changing over to longer term employment relationships” (Media Update 17 August 2011, “Yale Law School releases a report on Fixed Duration Contracts”: ILO-BFC).

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)

Check out the training resources available through the ILO-BFC, as well as their 2011 tentative training schedule. Click here for the list of active factories registered and monitored through the ILO-BFC.

Sneaky Business // Oxfam Australia organizes virtual protest to support the rights of footwear workers

Oxfam Australia has launched a new online campaign: Sneaky Business—a virtual march touring protesters across factories in Southeast Asia, China and Central America, all the way to the headquarters of leading shoe manufacturer, Nike. The march is a call for action for workers rights in the global footwear industry. As I write this post, there are 205 virtual protesters marching through Indonesia.

The journey shows that poor working conditions are a global problem. Worker exploitation exists whether in Australia, South East Asia or Central America. However Sneaky Business also demonstrates that there are companies doing the right thing— ensuring that footwear workers are treated with dignity and have access to their rights.(Oxfam Australia)

When the march finishes up in the next few months, Oxfam will deliver the messages of each protester to the shoe manufacturers. Teachers, this sounds like a perfect project to get your class involved with come September.

To join the march, simply choose your message and upload a picture of your sneakers!

Bloggers, be sure to check out the Sneaky Business Toolkit.

Great work Oxfam!

Bangladeshi garment workers denied rights, War on Want reports

War on Want has published a new report outlining current conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh—Stitched Up: Women workers in the Bangladeshi garment sector.

Of the many issues addressed in this report, the research outlines the true impact of short lead times, explaining how wages earned can depend on whether or not a worker meets production deadlines. It also showcases certain worker rights that have been denied as a result of an absent rule of law.

The research conducted for this report reveals that women in the garment sector have been systematically denied their rights to maternity leave under Bangladeshi law.” (Stitched Up: pg 8 )

The report investigated 41 garment factories (there are an estimated 4,825 garment factories in Bangladesh) and interviewed nearly 1000 workers (there are an estimated 3 million garment workers in Bangladesh) (Stitched Up: pg 2). 86% of the mostly women interviewed (988/1000) were between the ages of 18-31 (Stitched Up: pg 2).

Head on over to War on Want to read the report and to learn more.

Kalpona Akter calls on Wal-Mart shareholders to stand-up for garment workers internationally

This past Friday, Kalpona Akter, of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), addressed Wal-Mart shareholders at their annual meeting to present the NYC Pension Funds’ shareholder proposal for Wal-Mart Supplier Human and Workers’ Rights Reporting, with the support of New York City Comptroller John C. Liu.

You can listen in on her empowered speech here (you’ll have to move ahead in the video—she addresses the shareholders from 2:14:30 – 2:19:22). You can also hear from Akter in a recent interview on Free Speech Radio News.

As we have reported, Akter is facing a potential life sentence, even possibly the death penalty, on what she says are fabricated charges from an alleged Wal-Mart subcontractor, among others.

Why is Wal-Mart such a big player to have on board in the struggle for decent work in Bangladesh? According to Akter, 12-15% of garments made in the country are produced for Wal-Mart. What’s more, of the 11 cases filed against labour activists as a result of the large-scale protests last year, 4 have allegedly come from a Wal-Mart subcontractor.

The New York Times reports that the Pension Funds’ shareholder “proposal states that there is a ‘significant gap between general policies against labor and human rights abuse and more detailed standards and enforcement mechanisms required to carry them out.’

It asks vendors to publish yearly reports that ‘include the supplier’s objective assessments and measurements of performance on workplace safety, and human and worker rights, using internationally recognized standards, indicators and measurement protocols.’ (New York Times)

Wal-Mart’s initial response claimed that such a policy would threaten access to certain products, acknowledging the difficulty in convincing their suppliers to get on board. “The company contends that even if it could enforce such a plan, to do so might threaten the availability of certain products from those who did not comply.” (New York Times)

Interactive lesson plans educate learners on responsible fashion

The Creative Commons is embedded into our responsible education ethos; we have researched and aggregated content to create educational resources because we believe that accessibility leads to accountability. Of course knowledge is power, but without access to knowledge we will not move forward.

In 2009 we brought you “[Lesson 1] Sifting through the ‘Ecofashion’ Lexicon” and our “Fibre Analysis”. In 2010 we worked further to bringing you lessons on the social, cultural, economic and environmental interdisciplinary challenges facing the value system that is the global apparel supply chain.

Social Alterations 2010 //

[Lesson 4] Corporate Social Responsibility

[Lesson 3] Global Governance and the Corporation

[Lesson 2] Connect // Key Players

[Fashion High] Understanding the Impact of your Clothing (pre-16 learners)

Social Alterations 2009 //


[Lesson 1] Sifting through the ‘Ecofashion’ Lexicon

Fibre Analysis

Check out this how to on navigating our site:

Social Alterations 2010 // Program Guide from Social Alterations on Vimeo.

Bangladeshi labour activists face trial and wrongful detention on fabricated charges

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) has reported today that Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter of the Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Center (BCWS), alongside other Bangladeshi labour leaders, will be forced back into court next month to face fabricated charges filled against them by apparel suppliers such as Walmart.

You may recall their 30 day wrongful imprisonment last summer, coming out of the wide-scale worker protests that rocked the garment sector, or the illegal detention of BCWS organiser Aminul Islam and recent 4 month unlawful detention of Mushrefa Mishu of the Garment Workers Unity Forum.

The CCC reports that “[a]ll cases consist of a range of charges with punishments ranging from three months to ten years to life in prison. Some of the charges are punishable by death.” (CCC)

Although Walmart has claimed that their supplier has dropped the charges, CCC claims this is not the case.

Walmart is the largest buyer of Bangladeshi-made clothing. Speak up on behalf of these workers: take action.

Remember, you can still upload your photo and message to the SA Visual Lab in support of these workers. Visit the SA Bagladesh Project for more details.

We are not powerless…

VOICES // Sourcing Change — Charlie Ross, Offset Warehouse

This post was written by Charlie Ross, Founder of Offset Warehouse and tells the story of one woman’s determination and drive for change. VOICES // a feature space on SA where community members are invited to share their journey in responsible design. What’s your story?

The first time ethical design came onto my radar was whilst I was studying for my BA in Fashion and it immediately struck a chord. Inspired by a friend to find out more about the social and environmental horrors underlying much of the fashion industry, I made an early decision to do everything I could to avoid contributing to it myself, with my own designs.

Having made the decision to ensure that everything I produced was as ethical as possible, I quickly discovered first hand how problematic this can be.  I was desperate to ensure that my graduate collection was both environmentally and socially responsible, but I soon found that trying to find ethical suiting fabric light enough, let alone affordable, was impossible.  Even hours of pleading with suppliers for sponsorship was to no avail (which, incidentally, is why I’m so keen to begin our sponsorship scheme, and have started a mailing list for all those interested!).

The closest I came to fulfilling my ambition of being truly ethical, was when I was given an opportunity to work with Reiko Sudo, founder of Nuno in Japan.  She supplied me with recycled polyester for my shirts, and a recycled content fabric that could be manipulated with heat.  The collaboration also came with a free ticket to Tokyo, so I attended the opening night of the exhibition where all the pieces were on display.  The whole experience was inspirational and made me realise that my dream of a world of ethical fashion could become a reality.

The second part of my studies was a Masters in menswear design at the Royal College of Art.  As wonderful as the opportunity was (and we all know how many famous designers started their careers there) I found myself constantly swimming against a strong current of professors and peers who didn’t agree with or understand my “green” thinking.  It certainly didn’t correspond to their idea of “fashion”, but undeterred, I set to work creating a collection that would challenge their preconceptions: I would create a collection that was ethical and beautiful and fashion forward.  And according to most, I succeeded.

But my commitment to being ethical meant I doubled my workload. As most of the fabrics I chose were organic, and therefore only came in neutral tones, I spent hours dyeing them to match my colourways, whilst at the same time ensuring I had used the minimum quantities I needed, to limit the amount that would be put back into the “cycle”.  I also ended up spending hours sifting through recycle banks to reclaim textiles – not to mention, the weeks of research it took to source the fabrics and services I needed.  I had to find leathers that were by-products and vegetan, spray paint old tarpaulins to make into jackets, source vintage buttons and pieces I could use for clasps … and all this before I even started the pattern cutting!

I realised very quickly that there needed to be a central source to go to for materials and information, if there was any chance of convincing those less committed than myself to take the ethical route in fashion. Yes, there were plenty of forums, but no solid solutions.

So, when I graduated from the RCA, I set about finding solutions to all the problems I had been faced with and Offset Warehouse was born.  My idea was to make a wide range of ethical textiles available to buy in one place and also to offer the resources needed for research, as well as access to the ethical services and businesses needed to be able to manipulate the textiles – ethical dye labs, embroiderers, fair trade manufacturers, laser cutters, pattern cutters… you name it!

And of course, as proof that ethical fashion can be fashion forward and affordable, I also decided to include a boutique. It’s also proving a great solution for ethical students who want to sell their graduate collections!

I had a few struggles initially.  Funding, of course, was a particular concern, but I finally decided that given the global nature of both my suppliers and potential users of the service, the most sensible place to set up the business was online. So that’s what I did and in turn, lowered the overheads of the business considerably.

Has it been an easy road?  No, by no means. Surprisingly perhaps, in this day and age, I have found being a woman and only 26 has caused problems.  It probably doesn’t help that I look younger than I am, but it makes me mad when I am patronised by individuals who assume that I am naive about the business.  More fool them! Attending the RCA allowed me experiences far beyond those one might expect of someone of my age. I’ve had exposure working alongside and pitching to companies including Umbro, Brioni, Thierry Mugler, Zandra Rhodes and Vogue.  Not to mention one to ones with the head designers of Versace, Givenchy and Valentino, and styling the rather difficult, Jonny Borrell (Razorlight) amongst other musical talents. Of course, it’s also part of my nature – I approach life with not just a “can do” attitude, but an “I can do it all” attitude.  Since I launched Offset Warehouse, I’ve become my own buyer, a journalist, a web designer and developer, law copyrighter, marketeer, PR person (including making my own promotional videos), and SEO writer… it’s amazing the things you can learn from a few books, free workshops and youtube!

But this immensely steep learning curve shouldn’t have been necessary – I’m a great believer in passing on knowledge, which is why Offset Warehouse promotes learning and presents its own lectures and workshops.  Knowledge is power, and understanding all aspects of being ethical – from the market, to what makes a fibre ethical, is, in my opinion, key to being a successful ethical designer.  Passing on knowledge is central to our ethos, and we don’t just lecture about ethical issues, but also present workshops that will help designers further their careers – we review lots of CVs and portfolios of designers who want to be part of the Ethical Directory, and you wouldn’t believe how many applications could be improved with simple tricks!

Since our launch, we’ve had a huge response.  It’s clear that we’re filling a gap in the market.

One unexpected development has been the demand for Offset Warehouse to provide consultancy. In response to the many requests we have had, I decided to establish a pool of consultants, all experts in their fields, who we can call upon to provide support to our clients.  Ranging from referring a fair trade manufacturer (which we don’t charge for), to developing a range of ethical accessories.  It’s been a fantastic addition to the business – and has left me wondering where we might go next… watch this space!

So here we are.  Looking back, we have come farther than I could have dreamed at this point.  It has not been an easy ride by any means and, looking forward, there is a long way to go for the industry to truly make a difference to the way it operates and the way it is perceived.  I personally am very proud of how far we have come but Offset Warehouse still has much to do and I suspect the challenges will be different but no less demanding.  Bring it on!