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.
This post was written byCharlie 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!
“Workers’ children in the area are not admitted in the Government schools in Delhi as they cannot provide the documents the Delhi Government Schools ask for.” (Worker X, Case Study: Taking Liberties)
Labour Behind the Label and War on Want are reporting gross violations of workers rights in two Delhi factories producing garments for M&S, Debenhams, Next Monsoon and Arcadia.
Taking Liberties, cites exploitative labour practices such as unregistered living in slum housing, precarious labour through non-contractual temporary employment, threats and violence against workers through hired security in anti-union workplace environment, poverty wages (workers paid less than ½ a living wage), and forced overtime.
The report is asking M&S, Debenhams, Next Monsoon and Arcadia to:
[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.
“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.
This guest post was written by Dr. Robert Hanlon, a post-doctorial Research Associate at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia. He is a former editor at the Asian Human Rights Commission and focuses on corporate social responsibility, corruption and human rights in Asia.
Rueters Image via The Daily Mail, Batons out: Nine garment workers were injured with riot police in Phnom Penh on July 27th as officials tried to end a week-long strike over the suspension of a local union official
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of garment workers flooded the streets of Phnom Penh demanding the government review a $US 5/month wage increase that was approved earlier this summer. Workers are demanding a further increase to the national minimum wage from US$ 61/month to US$ 93/month. The government and manufactures have rejected the demands saying it would reflect negatively on Cambodia’s competitiveness. With many employees refusing to return to work, a Cambodian court has branded the industrial action illegal and has given the green light for manufactures to fire anyone who continues to strike.
“[…] while the minimum wage law is only legally applicable to a small proportion of the entire workforce, it has far reaching implication throughout Cambodian society“
While minimum wage is a critical step for any government in guaranteeing the well-being of society, the Cambodian law only extends to the garment industry. This accounts to roughly 350,000 workers in the apparel and footwear sectors combined (less than 8 percent of the country’s working-age individuals). While Cambodia positions itself as a competitive garment manufacturer, nearly 70 percent of the country’s total workforce still reside in the rural areas and are not privy to the minimum wage law. Nonetheless, this group is highly dependent on remittance sent home by family members who have migrated to the city looking for work in the garment sector. In this sense, while the minimum wage law is only legally applicable to a small proportion of the entire workforce, it has far reaching implication throughout Cambodian society.
Interestingly, most garment manufacturers (especially those associated with International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program) agree that a minimum wage is critical in sustaining a certain quality of life while rightly arguing that workers already earn well-above the current minimum. In fact, the Cambodian Institute of Development Study (CIDS) has found that the average take-home income is $US 86.88/month. While workers may earn this wage, the amount is dependent on significant overtime.
What makes Cambodia exceptional is that the garment manufacturers are right in highlighting the actual take-home is higher than the minimum; however, conveniently disregard the often mandatory overtime requirements placed on workers. Moreover, the ILO estimates that nearly 30 percent of inspected factories do not adhere to the minimum wage requirements while only 8 percent follow the legal requirements governing overtime. When these challenges are factored in, the CIDS estimates garment workers in Cambodia must earn at least $71.99 to sustain their very basic well-being and that of their dependents.
“Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is still recovering from one of the world’s worst atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge. “
With some manufacturers disregarding the law and the government consistently backing industry, it should come as no surprise why Cambodian garment workers are frustrated. The government’s hard-line approach has not only protected local industrialists at the expense of workers, it has also given tacit approval for the courts and police to intimidate and assault those who challenge the system.
Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is still recovering from one of the world’s worst atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Nonetheless, it is slowly developing with one of the region’s highest annual growth rates. With the government competing for market-share with countries like China and Bangladesh where costs are low and quality is high, it remains unlikely that plight of Cambodia’s garment workers will be heard anytime soon.
Nonetheless, in a country where 30 percent of the population is still living on less than 50 US cents a day, we may take some solace in witnessing the determination of the Cambodian people to organize and reject the abject poverty inflecting so many of its communities.
“The action taken by Cambodian workers does not stand alone. Across Asia, workers are contesting poverty wages and deplorable working conditions.” (CCC)
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), are calling for action, requesting an urgent intervention in Cambodia.
“In recent months, worker stoppage and demonstration are happening in Bangladesh, Burma, China, and Vietnam, which underlines the necessity for brands and retailers to start working on a living wage.” (CCC)
According to their report, Cambodian garment workers went ahead with an organized strike (scheduled and announced to appropriate parties, 2 months in advance) on September 13th. The strike was called off on the 16th when the government invited unions to a negotiations meeting, schedule for next week (September 27th).
Unfortunately, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) fears that labour rights activists in Cambodian face judicial threats, calling for the employer association and the Cambodian Government to “cease any interference with, threats against and intimidation of trade unionist.” (CCC)
Research out of the Cambodia Institute for Development Studies shows that a wage increase to US$ 93 is necessary to cover the workers basic needs, concluding the following:
The current effective wage in the garment industry of US$79 per month, which includes overtime and other allowances, is not a living wage (as shown in Figure 9). If we exclude overtime, which is currently being reduced by factories at the moment because of the economic crisis, the average effective wage is US$67 per month. Overtime has played a very important role in enabling workers to cover their basic expenses and maintain a minimum living standard. This practice means that the living standard of garment workers is highly dependent on the economic situation. If the economy is in a good state, they get overtime, and their living standards improve; if the economy is in a bad state, overtime is reduced and the living standards of workers deteriorate even if they are employed. This set up provides no security for a decent living standard, which undermines industrial relations and the stability of the garment industry. To make the environment conducive for both employers and workers, there is an urgency to institutionalize the living wage, which should not be dependent on overtime.
According to our survey and calculations, the living wage of garment workers should range from at least US$90 per month to US$120 per month.
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
Aware of What We Wear: an Ethical Fashion Initiative
by Samantha Reichman,
Secretary of the Student Ethical Fashion Organization,
The College of William and Mary
How can fashion, a multibillion dollar flashy, frivolous, fickle industry, created to appeal to the whims of the consumer possibly be ETHICAL? Students of “Ethical Fashion” have discovered the answer to this question over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year.
The Sharpe Community Scholars Program at The College of William and Mary originated a service-learning, seminar-style course called “Ethical Fashion”, taught by Professor Regina Root. Designed for students interested in combining their concern about issues in the fashion industry with their desire for social justice, we signed up to engage the topic for an entire academic year. During the fall semester, we were challenged to discuss and research topics related to the global apparel industry: issues in production and distribution as well as workers’ rights and sweatshop labor. This semester, our focus has shifted to the creation and execution of a campus-wide project. We successfully hosted an ethical fashion show on April 10 to raise awareness on campus about this aspect of the worldwide fashion industry. On April 28, our classmates produced Josefina López’s “Real Women Have Curves” – a play about near-sweatshop-labor conditions in East Los Angeles to raise awareness of what is exactly going on in an industry that touches our lives every single day.
“Ethical Fashion” students are taking the next step in making this more than just a yearlong freshman seminar project. We are starting a movement. It began with an Ethical Fashion Report for the provost of the college, who understands the growing, changing nature of this issue around the world. Next, a constitution was written, resulting in the formation of an Ethical Fashion club. At our weekly meetings, we agreed the organization would be called SEFO: Student Ethical Fashion Organization. Blaise Springfield was elected the new president, along with an executive board on which I serve as secretary. This new student organization already seeks to partner with organizations as varied as Goodwill Industries, EDUN Live On Campus and Raíz Diseño, a transnational network of sustainable designers in Latin America.
At the first annual Ethical Fashion Show at William and Mary, we created a line of outfits from recyclable materials, utilizing one-of-a-kind pieces featured by our local Student Environmental Action Coalition for a fashion display on America Recycles Day. Students also worked with Goodwill, which donated clothing that was reused or upcycled for the fashion show. All in all, we showcased the possibilities of using recyclable materials to create functional, fun outfits. Yet other students designed and modeled their own creations made of plastic bottle caps, plastic bags, and corrugated cardboard.
In the theater of our Campus Center, the fashion show proved a great success and planted the seed for further community awareness and involvement in the burgeoning field of “Ethical Fashion”. With a little consciousness and some recycling, we can easily find ways to feel really good about what we wear!
“During the fall semester, we were challenged to discuss and research […] issues in production and distribution as well as workers’ rights and sweatshop labor.” (Samantha Reichman, Secretary of the Student Ethical Fashion Organization, The College of William and Mary)
“Real Women Have Curves” by Josefina López – a play about near-sweatshop-labor conditions in East Los Angeles
Samantha Reichman collected the plastic bottle caps that topped the various drinks consumed by her family. She used this dress as a kind of intervention -- to bring awareness of the waste produced through the consumption of bottled water.
Student modeling a dress recycled by Goodwill Industries, an organization with which the Student Ethical Fashion Organization partnered for the first annual ethical fashion show that featured a great deal of recycled apparel.
Group Photo: The first annual Ethical Fashion Show at College of William and Mary
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**