Liz explained, “The Fashioning An Ethical Industry project is basically an anti-sweatshop campaign, working to influence students and industry. We work with workers to protect them and work with students to educate them about the problems, so that when they are players in the industry, they will make decisions that raise standards for garment workers.
The project has been going for four years and we have already made an impression on fashion education. There is now a Masters in Ethical Fashion at UCA and more colleges are offering ethical fashion modules and arranging speakers. We have a stand at Graduate Fashion Week, promoting ethical and sustainable fashion. Our funding runs out at the end of May 2010 and we are deliberately not applying for more as we think five years should be enough to make an impact. Next year we will be running a legacy competition. Anyone wanting to keep in touch with our campaign should join our mailing list to receive a monthly bulletin.
Fashioning an ethical industry and creating sustainable fashion means different things to different people, all which may be valid. For our purposes, we believe that an ethical industry requires that working conditions in garment supply chains should have respect for human rights.
Workers are often invisible. You can see if a fabric has been dyed organically and you can often feel the difference and make collections from it, but the rights of the workers who produced it are not apparent. In 2000, a trillion US$ was spent on clothes and massive amount was spent on brands. If that money was spent fairly we could make a positive affect on millions of lives.”
Liz then delivered some shocking statistics exposing the harsh realities of life for workers. A garment worker is paid only 1% of the price of a pair of jeans, whereas the retailer gets 50% and 25% goes to brand administration and profit. In 2006 the monthly minimum wage in Bangladesh was £12.41. A single garment worker needs at least twice this to fulfil their basic needs. 70% of their income is spent on food and recently the price of rice has risen dramatically. This meagre amount was actually the first pay rise since 1994, when pay was just £7.50 per month.
Liz revealed, “Some workers will earn more but for most the level of their wages means they can barely afford to live. 75% of these workers are women. Babul was surprised when he came here to see that fashion students were predominantly female, as in Bangladesh the students would be men. Most of the workers in retail are women, buyers are women but at the top of the industry roles are held by men. A catwalk design will now be seen on the high street almost immediately. From design to manufacture to delivery now takes between 6 to 12 days only. 40% of clothes are now purchased at value retailers. We are spending more money buying more clothes but with less of our income.”
Liz introduced Kalpona Akter, Secretary General and Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity (BCWS), who explained that before she worked for the union she had worked as a sewing machinist since the age of twelve. She had been kicked, sacked and blacklisted for union activity. Kalpona explained the dramatic growth of the industry in Bangladesh:
“The industry started in the late 1970s. Until late 1982 there were only 47 garment factories. Cheap labour costs brought firms in and by 1999 there were around 2900 garment manufacturing units. Massive growth has continued and now there are 4740 factories. Many of the owners have two, three or four factories. 90% of the employees are women aged from 18 to 25. Information about the profitability of these factories is kept from workers to keep wages down.Significant improvements have been made but there is still a long way to go:
|no appointment letter||45% give|
|no ID card||65% give|
|no regular payment||85% give|
|no overtime||65% give|
|no job security||little change|
|huge verbal, physical and sexual harassment||reduced|
|legislation not enforced||35% complying with code of conduct|
|no maternity leave||30% give|
|no freedom of association||FOA still not respected|
"Although factories are complying in certain areas to the minimum standards, workers are not free to join a union and negotiate with managers to make improvements to conditions.”
Liz added, “In 2005, workers at the Spectrum factory, which was a very significant producer for major European brands, had noticed cracks in the walls and reported it, but no one listened. The nine-storey building collapsed, killing and maiming hundred of workers. The factory was filled with very heavy machinery but the building had not followed the building code and could not support it. The factory owner was above the law. No compensation was paid. The tragedy was not publicised but it sent shockwaves through the industry. Reforms came retrospective to accidents. People had to die in factory fires before fire escapes were installed. After the collapse the government and overseas buyers insisted on the building code being followed."
Kalpona continued, "In 2006 there was a spontaneous uprising of garment industry workers. There was widespread rioting and destruction. When workers tried to form union, many thousands were put in jail, and many are still there. Changes have come because of pressure from consumers who raised their voices to help the people behind the label. We are here today so that when you work in the fashion industry you will take the right and effective decisions for the workers.”