Material Visions

Do you know how your clothes were made?

Lamia Begum cries holding on to a barbwire fence in front of Rana Plaza building, two months after the building collapse at Savar, Bangladesh in June 2013. EPA/ Abit Abdullah

One moment: one recent Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on the top deck of a red London bus, watching a sea of shoppers flood over Oxford Circus. The cream of the British high street have their flagship stores there, Primark and Topshop, as well as international labels that Australian shoppers can’t get enough of, H&M, Zara, Uniqlo. Down Regent Street, across Oxford Street, all I could see was a slowly moving mass of people, all carrying shopping bags.

Another moment: whilst on that same trip, I wore a pair of Adidas sneakers. They’re black and grey, with pink and yellow accents on the toe, between the upper and sole, and they often elicit admiring comments from other people. When I was looking for a pair of sneakers earlier this year, I deliberately didn’t consider buying Nike shoes because of my disappointment at their failure to intercede on behalf of the Cambodian garment workers employed by their suppliers, who were killed by police this year for demonstrating for higher wages.

Little did I then know that Adidas also have a long track record of failing to pressure suppliers into creating safe working environments and implementing fair wages for the employees of the factories that make their product.

What other companies outsource their production to poorly regulated factories in Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia? New Balance, GAP, Levi’s, Benetton, Walmart, Primark, and Australian labels Peter Alexander and Just Jeans, among others.

By “poorly regulated”, I mean garment workers being compelled to work in buildings that have not passed fire safety inspections or that have had additional floors added that make them structurally unsound. I mean garment workers working unpaid overtime, being paid a minimum wage which is below a living wage, being exposed to dangerous fibres and chemicals without any workplace safety measures in place, and facing the loss of their job or imprisonment if they join a union or advocate for better conditions and pay.

Hundreds of people line up in front of Australia’s first Zara store which opened in Sydney in 2011. AAP/ Tracey Nearmy

We live in a culture that tells us that who we are is inextricably bound with what we consume. Our taste in music, where we dine, even what we don’t eat, and our personal style are all indicative of our identity, and communicate to others the kind of person we feel ourselves to be.

Implicit in this is value: looking good when spending less means you are a smart shopper. Wearing what is new (remember the lengthy queues outside Zara’s Pitt St store in Sydney when it opened?) or what is cool marks you out as someone who has access to the best, to the zeitgeist. So I wonder what it means to wear clothes by a multinational company whose net worth was US$22.76 billion as of May this year whose suppliers pay their employees below a living wage? For me and my “cool” Adidas sneakers, it meant being clueless about the human hands that made the shoes on my feet.

If we are going to participate in a culture of consumption, the least we can do is be aware about where our clothes were made, and under what conditions. Even better than that would be action: not a boycott of the companies that contract their production to suppliers, but agitation for fair pay and proper conditions for the garment workers who work for them.

Boycotting could lead to the closure of factories and the removal of essential industry from countries for whom export is economically fundamental (the garment industry in Bangladesh, for example, employs four million people and provides nearly 80% of the country’s exports).

But what if we, the customers of these companies, wrote to them, demanding accountability and transparency in their production processes? We could start in Australia by putting pressure on Best and Less and the ironically named Just Group (which owns labels such as Portmans, Peter Alexander, Dotti, Jay Jays, Jacqui E, Just Jeans and Smiggle) who have not yet signed the legally enforceable Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. (You can see the list of the official signatories here)

What if we threw our support behind transformative measures such as the implementation of the Asian Floor Wage that would ensure fair pay for garment workers across Asia, reducing the danger of companies moving production to somewhere cheaper within the region if wages are raised?

What if when we looked at shops, we looked past the promise of “better”, and “transformed”, and “new” and thought of Leap, a Cambodian garment worker who said:

I used to think that if I could have one quality and beautiful bra like I make, I would be really happy and I would be very beautiful. But it’s impossible. These bras are for export, and the price of one of the bras I make is almost equal to my salary. While working, I hold the bra up in front of my face, then I ask myself who is the woman who will wear the bra I am sewing. I also wonder how the women in these countries are so rich and lucky to wear these expensive bras while the person who makes that bra just wears a very cheap one bought from the pile of clothes on the ground under the umbrella.

What if instead of feeling entitled to cheap clothes, we, with our considerable buying power, championed the rights of workers like Reba Sikder, who worked at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh?

Reba, one of the survivors of that disaster which killed over 1,100 people and injured 2,500 more, who, alongside her colleagues, was ordered into the factory because an international buyer was putting pressure on management to receive their shipment even though significant cracks had appeared in the building on the previous day.

Reba, who, when she was trapped in the collapsed factory, “saw another thirty workers trapped, many of them dead, injured, and everyone is screaming … and I saw one of my coworkers drinking her own blood from her injured area, because she was so thirsty and there is nothing she can get”, and who has still not received any compensation for her injury.

If we know about this suffering, if we know about this terrible inequality, and we could say something, and we don’t, what does that say about us?

Want to find out more? Here are some useful places to start: Labour Behind the Label; Oxfam on worker’s rights; Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) on garment workers