Category Archives: Health and Safety

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.

LEARN // The WellMade Project

WellMade - Facebook banner image


A three year project that began in 2013, WellMade provides free online resources designed to help brands better support labour rights in their supply chains.

The Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) is lead partner on the initiative, working collaboratively with other partners and associates.


There are currently four specific case studies to assist brands:

(1) “You know those pants we ordered? We need them in a different color!”

(2) “I’m visiting a factory but I’m not a CSR specialist. What can I do to help?”

(3) “We have found labour problems in one of our factories. What should we do?”

(4) “Subcontracting: How can this small group of workers produce so many t-shirts?”

If you’re in Paris, you can catch the project for a free workshop tomorrow (10 Feb) at Texworld.

Follow WellMade on Facebook and Twitter for updates on resources, as well as future workshops and events.

POLL // Child labour in the fashion supply chain

Child Labour

(Update: The video embedded below is seemingly no longer available to view online. The video depicted a number of children working in India, sewing clothing for the H&M and Alexander Wang collection at machines in a factory. At the end of the video, one boy declared how happy he was to work on this line. To be clear, the video was not real, it was a spoof.)

Have you seen this satire on the H&M x Alexander Wang collaboration?

fairtradefashion from Peter Schwarm on Vimeo.

The spoof, produced by Dandy Diary and filmed in Mumbai, was meant to connect Alexander Wang’s reported association with garment worker grievances to Dandy Diary’s perception of manufacturing practices in H&M global supply chains. In 2012, Wang was sued by former employees claiming to have worked 80 hour weeks without overtime pay, in a garment factory in New York.

We are interested in your thoughts on child labour * in fashion and apparel production, to assess your need/want for related educational resources.

For this reason, we’d be grateful if you would consider completing this short poll:

*For the purpose of this survey, ‘child labour’ is defined in accordance with the International Labour Organization (ILO) definition:


“work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. 

It refers to work that:

We strongly urge you to click here for more information on child labour from the ILO.

Sandblasting! Part Deux


Killer Jeans. A campaign by Labour Behind the Label and the Clean Clothes Campaign.

The sandblasting saga continues as a completely unnecessary denim distressing technique persists. This despite the fact that around 40 brands banned the use of sandblasting in their supply chains as part of the successful campaign spearheaded by the Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label.

What’s the big deal with sandblasting?

If sandblasting is done under sub par conditions, it almost inevitably results in a lung disease called silicosis. This is not a new disease. It has been well documented and is completely preventable with good ventilation and safety equipment. The disease  develops when people inhale crystalline silica, a basic component of sand, which then causes lung inflammation and scarring potentially leading to death. In an article published in Occupational Medicine, Akgun (2006) investigated the prevalence of silicosis in Turkey’s denim blasting industry and concluded that

“The case series we present here is alarming in that it demonstrates that silicosis, a long-recognized but preventable occupational disease can still occur in previously unrecognized occupations. The occupation of sandblasting denim jeans is relatively new and has developed as a result of changes in fashion in developed countries and the demand for worn-looking jeans. Tragically, this condition has occurred in very young men with an average of only 3 years in this particular occupation. Lack of awareness of the condition and the dangers of silica and inadequate protective measures have already had fatal results. Silicosis is a well-known disease and its clinical forms have been well characterized. The classical form of silicosis usually follows one or more decades of exposure. However, in contrast to the chronic or classical form of silicosis, the accelerated and acute forms result from intense exposure to high levels of respirable dust that contain a significant proportion of silica, and these develop after much shorter duration.”

I highly encourage you to read this short journal article to grasp the seriousness and the severity of this disease particularly when it comes to textile production.

So what else is new?

Last night, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), War on Want and the IHLO (ITUC/GUF Hong Kong Liaison Office) released an incriminating report entitled Breathless for Blue Jeans: Health Hazards in China’s Denim Factories, which uncovers the continued use of sandblasting in China’s denim manufacturing industry. The investigation by SACOM was limited to six denim factories in Guangdong province (just across the border from Hong Kong) which some may think is not a representative sample. However, it is important to keep in mind that China’s textile manufacturing industry is concentrated in two areas, one of which is the Pearl River Delta which primarily covers Guangdong province, a hub for denim – around 50% of global production (CCC 2013. p. 10). Xintang county alone is responsible for “over 260 million pairs of jeans a year, equivalent to 60% of China’s total jeans production, and 40% of the jeans sold in the US each year (Greenpeace 2010).” The factories investigated include two major garment producers with thousands of workers; one of which supplies around 4% of denim sold in the US (CCC 2013, p. 10). The other 4 factories include a smaller production facility and three subcontractors.

The report points out some alarming trends. Although the prevalence of sandblasting has declined between 2009 and 2012, thanks in part to increased consumer awareness and united action on the brand side, promises to eliminate sandblasting have been matched by evasive maneuvers on the manufacturing side:

“One factory reportedly continued its sandblasting on the sly, surreptitiously dismantling the sandblasting machinery and hiding it in advance of inspections…Factories also concealed their sandblasting units behind locked doors and had increased security for these units, limiting access solely to the sandblasters (p. 11).”

In interviews, SACOM found that workers were ordered to dismantle and hide sandblasting equipment in advance of factory inspections and audits, which was then reassembled once auditors exit the premises (p. 13). Furthermore, at one factory, younger workers began to reject sandblasting positions. The management responded by offering a higher wage for the position (p. 12). Therefore, although some workers are aware of the health risks associated with sandblasting they still take the job to secure a higher salary (p. 13). SACOM also outlines the emergence of new techniques designed to replicate the effects of sandblasting such as chemical spraying, bleaching and manual polishing and sanding. These techniques are themselves risky especially when performed without adequate safety equipment (pp. 14-18).

A worker manually polishing jeans in a Chinese factory. Justin Jin/SACOM. (CCC 2013)

SACOM’s findings highlight the importance of unannounced audits with off-site worker interviews in rooting out evasive activities in the supply chain. The report also reminds us that it is essential to remain vigilant when it comes to occupational health and safety especially when new techniques are adopted. Finally, there is a real need to instill a culture of safety beyond the first tier of production and into the lower tiers of the supply chain. This is a major problem in production. For example, look at the photo on page 17 of the report. See the worker smoking his cigarette while spraying the jeans with potassium permanganate? Often times, even when workers are trained to use safety equipment, they still ignore these requirements because the equipment either hampers their production speed, or gets in the way, or is uncomfortable, or they’re not used to it etc… Training is not enough. There has to be a concerted effort by all stakeholders involved to change the way people think about workplace safety and the costs associated with it. It is truly sad that evasion and the expectation that it will happen is an industry norm, leading to supply chain relationships built on suspicion and policing. It’s time for systemic change that aims to transform norms and values related to workplace safety. The view that workers are dispensable production inputs is antiquated, to say the least.



Akgun, M., Mirici, A., Ucar, E. Y., Kantarci, M., Araz, O., & Gorguner, M. (2006). Silicosis in Turkish denim sandblasters. Occupational Medicine56(8), 554-558.

Clean Clothes Campaign, SACOM, IHLO, & War on Want. (2013). Breathless for Blue Jeans: Health hazards in China’s denim factories.

 Greenpeace. (2010). The Dirty Secret Behind Jeans and Bras.

Killer Jeans: Sandblasting continues…



A new report by the Clean Clothes Campaign exposes the continued use of sandblasting in the Bangladesh garment industry, despite it being banned by some big brands and outlawed in Turkey since 2009. The CCC recognise that this problem is not exclusive to Bangladesh, and like the International Textiles Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation [ITGLWF], call for global action on the issue.

”This report shows that a voluntary company ban is simply not enough – governments worldwide should enforce a national ban as well as enforcing import bans.” Clean Clothes Campaign 2012

Sandblasting is a technique used to distress denim and the practice is widely accepted as being dangerous to workers health, including exposing them to the risk of Silicosis, an incurable and potentially fatal lung disease. These concerns are made more worrying where health and safety precautions are inadequate or non existent. The Deadly Denim report contains the findings of research conducted in Bangladesh including interviews from garment workers, suppliers and heath care professionals; it also explores why sandblasting is still widely used despite the known dangers, and offers recommendations to brands, governments and international organisations.

The issue of sandblasting is one which should lead us all to question the real cost of the clothes we buy and whether it is ever acceptable for people to risk their lives in the production of fashion items.


Further Reading //

Sandblasted jeans: Should we give up distressed denim?[article]: BBC World Service

Killer Jeans: A campaign by Labour behind the Label

Deathly Jeans: Sandblasting damages health : Published by Aktive Forbrugere in collaboration with Clean Clothes Campaign

Global Campaign to Eliminate Sandblasting: International Textile Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation [ITGLWF]





Anti-Slavery International targets European Parliament through Cotton Crimes campaign

Anti-Slavery International has recently relaunched their Cotton Crimes campaign with a new video.

It is our hope that, through our short video, we will reach out, inform and encourage people to act in the interests of the children of Uzbekistan.” (Samuel Cooper, Anti-Slavery International)

Anti-Slavery International is calling on the European Parliament to remove preferential trade tariffs with Uzbekistan. Click here for more information and to sign the petition.

Over 60 international retailers have joined forces to boycott Uzbek cotton, publicly stating their commitment to the eradication of forced child labour through the Responsible Sourcing Network, an As You Sow initiative.

Click below to learn more about what’s happening inUzbekistanand to follow our ongoing coverage:

LEARN // Social Alterations / A Closer Look / Uzbekistan

Where Are These Child Labourers Working?

Today, we’re  playing a game. Read the clues and try to figure out the location before you get to the end of this post.

  • In this country, children between the ages of 12 and 18 are legally allowed to work long hours in all sorts of hazardous conditions as long as the job is classified as agricultural work. If the farm is classified as a ‘small’ farm, children of any age can work as hired labourers.
    • Some of the most common jobs include:
      • picking fruits and vegetables
      • picking tobacco
      • hoeing cotton and weeding cotton fields
    • Some common job-related hazards include:
      • using sharp farm implements such as knives and chainsaws
      • operating heavy machinery such as tractors and grinders
      • pesticide exposure
      • sexual harassment and violence
      • exposure to extreme temperatures
      • repetitive motion injuries
      • unsanitary conditions
      • extremely long workhours sometimes without a day off during peak seasons
  • This country’s Department of Labour estimated that 3% of agricultural workers are children however, this is a flawed measure since it does not include children below the age of 14. Other estimates are as high as 9% of agricultural workers, however, this also does not include undocumented or subcontracted workers and workers working on their own family farms. Farms in this country rely on subcontractors to provide an estimated 15% or more of their workers. These labour contractors mediate the relationship between the growers and the workers. Therefore, the growers often have no contact with their subcontracted labourers. The growers pay a lump sum to the labour contractors who often manage all issues related to wages, transportation to job sites, and pay deductions.
  • Up to 40% of farm labourers are migrants that move with the seasons. Farm labourers are also ‘overwhelmingly poor’. These patterns of migration and poverty drive many adult labourers to ask their children to work alongside them. The impact on the child’s education can be significant. In some cases, because of the migration with the seasons, children may leave school in early spring and return in the late fall missing a few months each year. One third of child farm labourers drop out of school altogether.
  • Both adult and child farm workers are often not paid the minimum wage. In some cases, children are paid less than their adult counterparts, in other cases, a legal loophole provides exception for small farms and farms paying a piece-rate [which encourages unsafe work practices since safety equipment often hampers work speed]. Furthermore, overtime pay is not required for agricultural workers.
  • This country is not mentioned in the US DoL’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor despite the fact that the legal loopholes for farm work create, reinforce and support conditions which are in clear violation of the ILO’s convention for the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor (no. 182 adopted in 1999). ‘Child’ in this convention is defined as all persons under the age of 18 and the worst forms of child labour includes “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children (Article 3(d))”. This country was one of the first to ratify this convention and has been very active in promoting and instituting the convention worldwide.
  • Did I mention that this country is one of the top producers of cotton this year? Most of its cotton is exported to major clothing producers including China [the top destination], Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Did you guess where? Watch the video to find out:

The Harvest/La Cosecha – Promotional Trailer from Shine Global on Vimeo.

Shocked? So was I!

For more info, check out the following:

Human Rights Watch: Fields of Peril

  • A lot of the information in this post is summarized from this report. Thanks to Human Rights Watch for their continuous and unwavering commitment to this issue. This report contains a lot more information that I barely touched upon with enormous detail on the plight of these child farm workers. They also have first hand accounts of the working conditions the children must endure. This report is a must-read if you are interested in learning more about this issue.

Cynthia Castaldo-Walsh’s post on

  • This is an excellent overview of the legal loopholes in the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) which allow for these conditions. She also gives a brief description of changes proposed in the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment. This bill was introduced in 2009 and is still being churned through government machinery. You can track what’s happening with the bill here and here.

Mike Elk’s post on In These Times

  • This post discusses the proposed revisions to federal law by the Department of Labor to better protect child farm workers. In particular, Elk points out how slow the process has been but he does also draw attention to the next resource in the list.
The Department of Labor’s proposed changes
  • The DoL’s proposed changes to federal law are up for public comment until November 1st and can be found here.
60 Minutes did a short (11 minute) segment about a family weeding cotton in the Texas plains. I strongly suggest it as a way to draw students into a debate on these issues:
[please keep watching beyond the ad in the first few minutes, I promise it’s worth it!]

The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs Children in the Fields Campaign 

The Harvest/La Cosecha: The Story of the Children Who Feed America

Special thanks to for bringing this issue to our attention. It really made us think about our preconceptions. Sometimes, just because something is “American [or Canadian] made” doesn’t necessarily mean it is responsibly made. Growers may be fulfilling their legal obligations, which is part of their responsibility, yet they are under enormous pressure to provide products at low prices giving them incentive to maintain and perpetuate this system of labour. At the same time, we, as consumers, are also part of the problem by constantly demanding low-priced commodities. But, these low prices do not reflect the real costs of production. These issues are very complicated. There is no easy answer. At the end of it all, someone, somewhere along the line still has to pay the real cost in one way or another.

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!