Category Archives: Torture

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.

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)

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…

The Call of Juarez // Profit in Violence

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 Cartel is the French video game company Ubisoft, There has already been outcry over the game, with critics claiming it dehumanizes victims. No apology from Ubisoft; 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?

On October 28th of last year four people were killed when “gunmen opened fire on a trio of buses carrying nightshift maquiladora workers to communities outside the city.”

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)

At least 28 Garment Workers Die in Bangladeshi Factory Fire, Clean Clothes Campaign Reports

We are stricken by the news out of the Bangladesh today, where at least 28 garment workers have died in a factory fire. As you know, we have been campaigning for these workers, with your support. Our campaign is ongoing, and we will keep you posted on how to get involved as the story develops. In the meantime, please read the below message from the Clean Clothes Campaign.

The Guardian reports: Workers jump to their deaths as fire engulfs factory making clothes for Gap

The Associated Press, via npr: Dozens Killed In Bangladesh Factory Fire; 100 Hurt


The folowing text is an urgent message from the Clean Clothes Campaign:


Labour rights groups: “Failure of brands, government and manufacturers to take preventive action condemns more workers to die”.

Amsterdam/Toronto/Washington D.C., December 14, 2010

The Bangladeshi garment industry is notorious for its chronic safety problems, including locked or inaccessible fire escapes and malfunctioning fire equipment, which often lead to fatal accidents.” (Clean Clothes Campaign)

At least 28 more Bangladeshi garment workers have died and dozens more have been injured after a fire broke out today on the 9th and 10th floors of the “That’s It Sportswear Ltd” factory located 16 miles from the capital Dhaka. Several workers appeared to have suffocated, while others jumped to their deaths trying to escape the burning building or were trampled by their colleagues as they rushed towards the exits.

The factory was reportedly producing for major international buyers including Gap (confirmed) and Wrangler (VF Corporation), as well as for Hong Kong buying house BF Fashion. It belongs to the well-known Ha-meem group, one of the biggest manufacturers in the country, which has a dubious labour rights track record. The company is known for unauthorized subcontracting, meaning the factory may have also been producing for brands which are unaware of their production there.

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) and other labour rights organisations have regularly contacted buyers sourcing from Ha-meem about violations of freedom of association and other labour standards at the company’s factories. According to the Ha-meem Group website their buyers are presently Walmart, H&M, Next, JC Penney, Kohl’s, Squeeze, Sears, Target Store, Charming Shoppes, Carrefour, Inditex, Miss Etam, Migros and Celio.

First eyewitness reports indicate that at least 2 of the 6 exits were locked, and that this was a common occurrence in the building.  The Bangladeshi garment industry is notorious for its chronic safety problems, including locked or inaccessible fire escapes and malfunctioning fire equipment, which often lead to fatal accidents. Said Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium, “Labor rights organizations have pleaded for years with US and European clothing brands to take aggressive steps to address the grossly substandard fire and building safety practices of their business partners in Bangladesh. The brands have failed to act and, once again, we see the gruesome consequences of this inaction.”

Following the deaths of 21 workers in the “Garib and Garib” factory in February of this year, virtually all of the buyers of Hameem group were contacted by the CCC, the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) with a set of recommendations* outlining specific measures that should be taken to eliminate the systemic problems underlying these deadly tragedies. “More needs to be done by all concerned to ensure further disasters are prevented” the buyers were told, but brands, employers and the government failed to take the necessary action to avoid these preventable tragedies.

Measures proposed by the labour groups included a thorough review of all multi-story garment production facilities, expert fire safety inspections and ensuring that workers are allowed to report and challenge health and safety violations by supporting their right to organize.

“Workers keep dying while the brands, the government and the employers drag their feet and try to shift the responsibility upon each other” says Ineke Zeldenrust from the CCC. “We’ve warned the brands repeatedly that this would keep happening again and again, but they’ve chosen to respond only in a minimal fashion,” she added.

The CCC, ILRF, WRC and MSN also call upon the brands sourcing from the Hameem group to make sure that the injured receive all the medical care needed and that they and the relatives of the victims are compensated for current and future loss of income.

To read the full set of recommendations made by the CCC, ILRF, WRC and MSN to eliminate systemic safety problems in the Bangladeshi garment sector please visit:

(Source: Clean Clothes Campaign)

Shamelessly Idealistic? Free the Children // We Day: Vancouver, Canada

[Centre: This child was 12 years old when he was assassinated for standing up for his rights]

Acting is what I do for a living; activism is what I do to stay alive. (Martin Sheen)

Today I witnessed 18,000 youth stand up and shout out  in support for children’s rights. Have you ever heard 18,000 children chant freedom, again and again? I can assure you that it is a sound I will not soon forget.

Did you know that he has been arrested more than 60 times for activism? He looks pretty darn innocent in this photo!

This year’s We Day events saw Free the Children co-founders Craig and Mark Kielburger celebrate the hard work and dedication of students all across Canada—students who have collectively raised 5 million dollars, banking 1 million volunteer hours along the way, for children in need.

The event has attracted human rights and environmental leaders from around the world; on stage to support, celebrate and motivate these students were activists Martin Sheen, Al Gore, Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., Rick Hanson, Ethan Zohn, Philippe Cousteau, Spencer West, Scott Hammell, and Robin Wiszowaty, and musicians Hedley, Colbie Caillat, and The Barenaked Ladies.

Click here to watch it live on demand.

Youth are not our future, they are our right now” (Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr.)

Empowering students by empowering teachers, the We Schools in Action program has built 150 schools (650 schools, over the last 15 years) in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Ecuador, China, Haiti and Sri Lanka and provided more than 60,000 people internationally with clean water.

Free the Children Founders Craig and Mark Kielburger

Want to get your students involved? Teachers, this is a year long initiative, with campaigns set to keep your students motivated and engaged throughout the entire process:

Halloween for Hunger asks children to collect canned goods instead of candy, for donation in their community: 2009 saw 217,000 pounds of food collected

• On November 19th students are asked to participate in a Vow of Silence; this day of action calls attention to the 218 million child labourers who have no voice.

• On January 12th, students celebrate and remember Haiti, through the We are all Haitians campaign

• February 19-25 is Aboriginal Education Week, where students are tasked to take action within their own local communities

• April 11-15 is 5 Days of Freedom. Register your interest and they will provide your school with posters, celebrity videos, motivational resources, etc.

Representing Social Alterations, I felt proud to be in the same room not with the leaders mentioned above, but with these kids…..these 18, 000 kids! It was like nothing I have ever experienced.

For more information, please check out We Day and Free the Children.

TEACH// Fun Workshops for Pre-16 Learners: [Fashion High] Understanding the Impact of your Clothing


Fashion High @ Balmoral Jr. Secondary School from Social Alterations on Vimeo.

On Earth Day, SA stepped back into the classroom to introduce Grade 8 students to the social and environmental impacts of fashion.

We have collated our favorite activities from Teaching Sustainable Fashion: A Handbook for Educators as well as developed our own exercises to create two workshops for pre-16 learners.

These workshops hope to engage, educate, encourage and empower both educator and learner to get involved with the issues. Each workshop provides resources and tools to help lessen the impact of the fashion industry on both people and planet.

We’ve put together this video of the 1 Hour workshop in action, so that you may get a better picture on how this might work in your classroom.


This workshop was designed to introduce pre-16 students/participants the value of a responsible fashion industry, by understanding the impact our clothing has on both people and planet.


  • To engage students/participants on the impact their clothing has on garment workers working within the fashion industry.
  • To educate students/participants on the impact their clothing has on the planet, specifically in terms of best practices in laundry habits.
  • To encourage students/participants to ‘talk back’ to the industry, through a critical examination of fashion themes coming out of the industry, specifically surrounding beauty and wealth.
  • To empower learners to take back control of the impact their clothing on both people and planet.

For more information on these activities, please visit the ‘Works Cited’ page at the end of each workshop.

* If you are planning to use this lesson, please let us know so that we may keep track of our programming.*

** Please ask your students to complete the online feedback forms**

[Fashion High] Understanding the Impact of your Clothing: An Introduction by Social Alterations is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License.

Click on the links below to download the workshops:

[Fashion High] Understanding the Impact of your Clothing: An Introduction, 1 Hour Workshop

Download here: Fashion High – 1HourWorkshop

[Fashion High] Understanding the Impact of your Clothing: An Introduction, 2 Hour Workshop

Download here: Fashion High – 2HourWorkshop



“Step into her shoes” for some Human Rights training with Fashioning an Ethical Industry

Back in January, we posted on Clearing the Hurdles, a report by The Playfair campaign, which is made up of  the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker’s Federation (ITGLWF), in partnership with Maquila Solidarity Network, and other organizations worldwide.

This May, Fashioning an Ethical Industry invites teachers and tutors  to “Step into her Shoes” and be introduced to a “new pack of teaching resources aimed at KS4, A-level and FE themed around the London’s 2012 Olympics. The pack focuses on issues of human rights within global sportswear supply chains, including case studies, lesson plans, an online game and picture resources. The session will introduce the materials with suggestions for how to use them, and provide a background to the wider Playfair 2012 campaign calling for a fairer deal for garment workers producing sportswear and branded goods for the Olympics.” (FEI)

Title: Teacher and Tutor Training: Step into her Shoes
Location: London
Link out: Click here
Start Time: 16:00
Date: 2010-05-26
End Time: 18:00

READ// the Fair Wear formula

The Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) has launched a new publication, the Fair Wear formula.

The design by Ruben @ Buro RuSt combines with the more than readable texts by Anne Lally combine to create an innovative, attractive description of the FWF approach to improving labour conditions in garment supply chains. In hardback or paperback.” (FWF)

Image: FWF’s focus (image from the Fair Wear formula, (c) Buro RuSt


If you aren’t already familiar with the Fair Wear Foundation, an international verification initiative dedicated to enhancing workers’ lives, take a minute to check out their guiding principles:

Supply chain responsibility = realising that the Code can only be fulfilled when sourcing companies, as well as factory management, actively pursue practices that support good working conditions.
Labour standards derived from ILO Conventions and the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights = basing FWF’s Code on internationally-recognised standards which have been set through tri-partite negotiation.
Multi-stakeholder verification = verification processes developed through multi-stakeholder negotiation, and involving experts from diverse disciplines and perspectives in FWF verification teams.
A process-approach to implementation = paying special attention to the means (i.e. building functioning industrial relations systems over time) in order to achieve the end (i.e. sustainable workplace improvements).
Involvement of stakeholders in production countries = engaging local partners in shaping FWF’s approach in a given region or country.
Transparency = keeping relevant stakeholders informed of FWF policies, activities, and results; publicly reporting on member company efforts to fulfil FWF requirements.


For more information on this publication, and others, contact