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Essay: The fashion industry – impact on children and women

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Article 23: We all have the right to employment, to be free to choose our work, and to be paid a fair salary that allows us to live and support our family. Everyone who does the same work should have the right to equal pay, without discrimination. We have the right to come together and form trade union groups to defend our interests as workers.
Article 25: We all have the right to enough food, clothing, housing and healthcare for ourselves and our families. We should have access to support if we are out of work, ill, elderly, disabled, widowed, or can’t earn a living for reasons outside of our control. An expectant mother and her baby should both receive extra care and support. All children should have the same rights when they are born.
Article 26: Everyone has the right to education. Primary schooling should be free. We should all be able to continue our studies as far as we wish. At school we should be helped to develop our talents, and be taught an understanding and respect for everyone’s human rights. We should also be taught to get on with others whatever their ethnicity, religion, or country they come from. Our parents have the right to choose what kind of school we go to.
The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, (Un.org, 2018)

A sheer 1.1 billion girls are undeniably a source of power, energy and creativity yet regrettably gender inequality is widespread across the world. Girls have far fewer opportunities than boys, even in more developed countries but this disproportion is painfully apparent in parts of the developing world. There are a staggering 32 billion girls that should be in secondary school receiving an education and preparing themselves for a bright future but sadly this is not the case.
“When girls are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous” Michele Obama, (whitehouse.gov, 2018).
In 1908 15,000 women marched through New York City with the sole purpose of demanding shorter working hours and better salaries as well as voting rights. This was the inception point of what was later to become International Woman’s Day. Just over a century later the United Nations marked the 11th of October as the first International Day of the Girl Child. This heralded the continuing challenges young girls would and still face in communities around the world, especially in accessing education but more importantly being safe from violence and exploitation. Unfortunately within the fashion industry the demands to meet fast fashion are overwhelming. Consequently to remain competitive, manufacturers maintain their expenses low by driving down factory bosses’ prices resulting in garment makers earning a pittance and this is inarguably a one-way conversation. Sadly child workers are paid even less and so become an attractive bait for employers.  Parents are forced to send their children to work to survive including their young daughters who have to work in poor and unsafe conditions in order to provide for their families. However the textile and clothing industry is the second biggest employer after agriculture in developing countries and a large proportion of workers are women. Research proves that empowering women by educating and investing in them has a reaps dividends.  They are likely to spend their income on their families and home, on education health and food. Subsequently, this is clearly a step in the right direction in bringing a change to their communities.
Garments are produced by these girls and women by the thousands but how many of us stop and think about the history behind the garment we choose to buy, for example a T shirt? The T shirt is a staple in our wardrobe and as we become proud owners of our new purchase we are also the last in a long chain of people who have come into contact with it. If we were to travel back in its timeline,  we would meet the people who cut the garment, who sewed the seams, who added the breast pocket, who embroidered a motif, who sewed a button, who sewed on a zip, who stitched the label.  These people have a name and possibly a family who are responsible for the product that we are holding in a plastic bag as we proudly step out onto the high street having just bought it. These workers are responsible for making an extraordinary amount of fast fashion garments, people who are anonymous; they are commonly known as a machine number, more than likely the machine they sue to work with. These are generally young girls and women who are exploited and who work for the giants who have taken over our high streets.
If we take a look back about 200 years, long hours, dangerous conditions, child labour were all commonplace in the UK during the industrial revolution but legislation and social awareness rectified this. However in the last decades fast fashion has taken over the industry by storm and sadly history has repeated itself except that we find ourselves on the flip side of the coin. It is now the developing countries who are enduring these poor working conditions and hardships; these are the countries where are Western clothes are manufactured. Of the estimated 100 million people involved in the making of clothes and textiles, 90% are female. These girls and women have little or no power, money, protection from violence or access to decent employment and so become ideal candidates for sweat shop labourers.  According to Oxfam, fewer than half the women in Bangladesh’s textile and garment industry have a contract, indeed most do not have maternity or health cover. They work an average of 80 hours overtime a month and receive 60 to 80% of their earnings. The rest is withheld by the owners for rent, water and food. Sexual harassment is frequent and those who complain are dismissed (Lee, 2007).
China is also a hard competitor in the fast fashion industry because of its ability to produce garments at very short notice but this comes with a sombre consequence. This turnover is thanks to girls and women facing 150 hours overtime per month, 60% with no written contracts, working between 10 to 16 hours a day with one or two days off a month. It will come as no surprise that they are paid less than the minimum wage and so clearly insufficient income to cover living costs.  It is estimated that 9 out of 10 Chinese companies do not meet the national labour standards and so companies in the garment and textile sector turnover at the staggering rate of 200%.
A documentary was released in 2005 called “China Blue” directed by Micha X. Peled.  The documentary relates the story of a young girl called Jasmine of 17 years of age, who dreams of putting a written note in the back pocket of a pair of jeans; “Just wanted you to know who made your jeans – I cut the thread, Orchid put the zipper on and Li PIng sewed them”.  This underlines the existing abyss between who makes the garment and who buys it. The inside tag “Made in China” discloses nothing of the poor working conditions that these young girls and women are submitted to. “China Blue” reflects the miserable existance these people experience. To help support her family, Jasmine leaves her home to work in a factory thousands of miles away.  Unsurprisingly she quickly finds that she’s working up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week with one holiday a year. She lives in a room with the rest of the workers and the bare necessities such as food and water are deducted from her salary.  Mr Lam, the factory owner, is nothing more than a slave driver transmitting the pressure that he gets from the Western clients, (China Blue, 2006).
Uncannily a year ago shoppers in Istanbul were finding despairing notes in their clothing, supposedly sewn on by workers who claimed that they had not been paid for their work at the Bravo Tekstil factory in Turkey. Although it is challening to confirm the legitimacy of these notes since they were anonymous, it does shed some light as to the shady conditions that workers are subjected to. In July 2016, the factory shut down due to the “fraudulent disappearance of the Bravo factory’s owner,” Inditex says. The owner of the factory took all the money invested from other companies who had already paid upfront and disappeared without paying the workers who had already finished sewing the garments. The problem worsens when unethically Inditex continued with the sale of the garments made by unpaid workers in Zara stores and consequently made a profit from them, (Segran, 2018).
Another issue that is manifested more often than not is the gender based violence in the work place in garment factories. One example of this was recently uncovered in H & M’s and Gap’s supply chain. The type of violence ranged from physical to verbal abuse, intimidation, threats and reprisal as well as routine withdrawals of liberties such as forced overtime. Unfortunately these are a daily reality but are never reported to police for fear of retaliation. An investigation was carried out by H&M and Gap based on gender-based violence in nine garment factories across Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. These reports show that these are not isolated incidents and reflect  gender based violence in H&M and Gap garment supply chain reflect how these fashion companies conduct business with their suppliers. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) assembled to initiate the first international labour standards on gender based violence and harassment at the workplace. The report also offers concrete steps to that fashion giants such as H&M and Gap can take to eliminate violence and intimidation in the work place.  H&M responded to these claims in the report Gender Based violence in the H&M garment Supply Chain, reiterating that all forms of abuse, violence and harassment go against the values of the Swedish fashion group. Gap also responded to these claims stating that they were conducting an investigation to ensure that their labourers work in safe conditions and are treated with respect and dignity.  Gender based violence and the undermining of women is a significant issue and definitely a subject for ILO to act upon (Hendriksz, 2018).
The step forward is to establish how giant retailers can empower women through fashion. All leading fashion brands should campaign to bring empowerment into main stream conscience to ensure that salaries are paid and that women are respected in the work place. Most leading brands endorse a code of conduct that includes the above and also sign a commitment to ensure that these basic needs are met. Brands must take a responsibility to ensure that they meet at the very least the minimum requirements for their workers.  Trade unions must also pressure to ensure that brands deliver on fair wages too and that factory workers must be allowed to form unions so that they can negotiate living wages and working conditions. In order to achieve this all parties involved whether they are government, trade unions, brands, employees or any other relevant organisations should recognise a coordinated approach as means to move forward, each assuming their responsibilities. All parties involved must show leadership in order to achieve this goal (Gould, 2018).
I recently watched a documentary released on Netflix on International Women’s Day the 8th March this year called “Ladies First”. Produced  by Uraaz Bahl and Shaana Levy-Bahl, it gives the most comprehensive vision into Deepika’s career. The story is about fighting to achieve your aspirations. The story depicts a young girl who broke away from poverty through sport and succeeds in winning gold in archery at the 2010 Commonwealth games. The film illustrates the relentless, violent poverty in rural Jharkand, where Deepika grew up in a mud house with no running water, no electricity and often had to steal food for her family. The film’s real focus is the incredible difficulties that young women face, especially in developing countries, trying to break out of the expectations that a male-controlled culture sets for them. Deepika became a role model for so many young girls. Despite coming from a very underprivileged background, Deepika is very much aware of the fashion industry and its fashion icons such as Karlie Kloss, (Ladies First, 2018).
Fashion is an influential tool to inspire young girls and its first priority should be to start communicating more empowering messages to girls. This can be done through brand messaging, through photography, through mannequins, through fashion icons and fashion ambassadors. The bottom line is that it is an unrealistic objective to change the world to support girls and women. However, it would make much more sense and be far more realistic not to mention easier to influence and educate young girls to change the world. Education is a key factor.  According to Unicef, investing in girls so that they can complete at least lower level secondary education could led to lifetime earnings of 68% of annual GDP. The fashion industry could also endorse apprenticeship programmes in order to keep young girls in schools and learn a skill so that they could support themselves and so empower them to get better jobs. These issues should be tackled as of immediate effect as in many cultures boys education is prioritised over girls. Better brand communication, messages of solidarity and sponsorship programmes through fashion can help girls and women to overcome their hardships and most certainly raise their aspirations to achieve their goals, (Doyle, 2018).
People Tree Ltd. is a fair trade clothing company founded in 1991 by Safia Minney in Tokyo, Japan. People Tree is pioneer in ethical and sustainable fashion. The company is based in both London and Tokyo. People Tree works in conjunction with varied social business and provides work and pays fair wages as well as investing in local communities. This is done by funding schools, procuring medical support as well as offering programmes that raise awareness on the rights of girls and women. They support communities who empower young girls and women to access education and vocation training programmes in Bangladesh, Nepal and India. By focusing on empowerment through their aspirations and dignified, artisanal work the local handicraft traditions are also kept alive. This in turn helps to strengthen communities, benefitting them to continue to support their education and development. It is also essential to note that 56% of the leadership roles in People Tree are held by women. People Tree also works with the NGO Swallows, who also works with empowering the poor and disadvantaged, especially women. Swallows runs handicrafts programme which makes beautiful, hand-woven and hand embroidered garments.  This business helps to fund Swallow’s work in the local area as well as empowering girls and women which is vertebral in their work. The People Tree Company also works with My Creative Handicrafts. This is an Indian social organisation for underprivileged women in the slums of Mumbai who achieve economic independence through training and so achieving empowerment through their employment, (Peopletree.co.uk, 2018), (Fashion Revolution, 2018), (Creative Handicrafts, 2018), (Fashion Revolution, 2018).
There are other fashion brands with similar ethos and ethics that help support women around the world. From the catwalk to the high street, celebrities, politicians, trendsetters, many slogan T shirts for example are worn by everyone. Last summer Harry Styles was seen sporting a t-shirt “Women are smarter”, advocating the empowerment of women (Hardy, 2018). Shortly after, Sienna Miller posted a photograph of herself wearing a Dior T shirt “We should all be feminists”, (Hardy, 2018). A part from these recent examples, Vivien Westwood has also spent the last 40 years advocating empowerment towards young girls and women. A growing number of independent brands and even some bigger chains are now producing some very attractive collections which are copies of haute couture garments that are sold on the high street at very affordable prices. These brands actively support women in their production lines but at what cost? Although there seems to have been a continuum through this last half century to support underprivileged women in the production line, there has been one very relevant dramatic change; the poor working conditions labourers have to endure at their work place to sew the  clothes we wear. Sadly, there is an obvious irony here that cannot go unnoticed.
Another company that is very proactive in championing underpriviledged girls and women is  “Shakti+Mary”.  This small fashion company boasts of a beautiful collection of hand-woven scarves and shawls made by women who belong to the Women’s Skills Development Organization in India. This fair trade organization provides free individual and professional training to disabled, widowed, divorced, single or outcast women empowering them to build better lives for themselves (SHAKTI+MARY, 2018).
ASOS’ range “Made in Kenya” is produced by SOKO in Kenya.  This is a manufacturing centre in the Rukinga Wildlife sanctuary. Sadly, rates of prostitution and HIV/AIDS are staggeringly high and unemployment is very low. Training programmes and employment provide women to be able to take control of their lives. This consequently enables them to provide for their families while taking them out of poverty. An added bonus is that this eco-factory also offers a pre-school facilities for the workers’ children, free medical care as well as hot meals every day (Asos.com, 2018).
As seen above, using fashion as a vehicle to enhance development is becoming increasingly popular albeit not popular enough to eliminate the hardship behind the manufacturing of many of the high street brands. Notwithstanding in 2006 the Indian garment manufacturer Shahi Exports was selected by the world famous fashion brand Gap as one of the factories where Gap runs its Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement programme (PACE). Given the fact that 70% of Gap’s workforce worldwide are women, the PACE programme helps women empower themselves through leadership courses as well as financial and legal literacy but equally important is that thanks to its success, Shahi Exports has implemented an extended programme PACE to train  60,000 of its workers by the end of 2020. Happily this will result in women gaining empowerment and consequently enabling them to provide for their families and regain their dignity.  To date, Gap has put 25,000 women through the PACE programme around the world while further extending their borders to communities in Cambodia and India. Happily there are future plans to extend the programme to Bangladesh, Haiti and Indonesia (Gap.com, 2018), (Shahi.co.in, 2018), (Mustafa, 2018).
In Sri Lanka in 2011, MAS Holdings, a manufacturer for brands such as NIKE, Victoria’s Secret, M&S, Gap, Reebok and Tesco became a participant to the UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles. Its own woman empowerment programme “Woman GoBeyond” focuses on investing in education and training for career enhancement for underprivileged communities in Asia, (Masholdings.com, 2018).
The ethical lifestyle brand Buqa Couture also supports women through fashion (Buqalife.com, 2018). The India based charity SHE (Self Help Enterprise) trains women in rural parts of India in needlework and designInternational Folk Art Market Online, 2018). This in turn allows women to develop a skill in order to earn a dignified living. Buqa Woman buys the SHE collection and sells it in London sending profits back to India where they are invested in funding women’s training, implementing infrastructures in villages and helping with education and welfare of girls and women in underprivileged communities.
Inditex, the Spanish fashion giant, is also heavily involved in women’s empowerment. Their empowerment programmes focus on the provision of training programmes and awareness regarding labour and social rights in order to help women progress in the place of work. They support women through education, debate and awareness while nurturing agreements with local women’s associations.  They also foster paired mentoring programmes within the factory, so that female leaders educate and train other female workers. They are also involved in protection and empowerment in India via The Sowbhagyam project. This project raises awareness among communities, recruiters and other stakeholders and educates about safe and fair work practices for women in the state of Tamil Nadu, in south-east India. This project was put into place in 2013 and comprises of training activities covering fundamental rights provided by local NGO SAVE with the participation of schemes such as the Tamil Nadu Multi Stakeholder Initiative (TNMS), promoted by the Ethical Trading Initiative in which NGOs, unions and other local governments (Inditex, 2018).
Another inspirational campaign that is helping young women in developing countries  is led by the inspiring editor of a leading fashion magazine in India; Priya Tanna,  the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue India and the backbone behind the current Vogue Empower campaign that focuses on women’s empowerment and on the difficulties faced by women in India today. Invited to a Ted talk in Mumai (TedxStXavierMumbai May 28th 2015) Priya gives the audience an insight into her initiative that bridges both fashion and women empowerment. From a fashion perspective she decided to embark on a campaign combining fashion and women’s empowerment. She undertook this campaign with passion and determination, reaching out to her circle of influences which in her case was the entire fashion industry and met with all of them.  In the span of a month Priya had 75 of the world’s leading designers on board including Gucci, Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton and closer to her home, Tarun Tahiliani, a noted Indian fashion designer. Each one of them donated one garment which was then tied up with Amazon and auctioned off to charity. The profits were then donated to “Give India” a non-profit organisation which works closely with woman’s issues such as education, domestic violence and vocational training. The campaign was also held along with AR Rahman – who composed the soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire, which he dedicated to the campaign. He is just one of a number of celebrities and business leaders to have backed the fashion magazine’s initiative to highlight the challenges women face in India (Combining fashion and women’s empowerment | Priya Tanna | TEDxStXaviersMumbai, 2015), (Vogue.in, 2018)
Fashion is powerful, so much so that it can bring positive changes to the most disadvantaged women in the world providing girls and women with opportunities from education, apprenticeships, training in order for them to achieve a personal enhancement, gain a life of dignity and independence.  It is clear that a living wage for women producing garments restores their dignity and is vertebral in helping them provide for their family. While there are a growing number of promising initiatives from eco brands as well as the bigger brands, it is imperative that more brands, governments and consumers take action to create a positive, energised long term approach in order that the sustainable fashion industry can grow from strength to strength and achieve fair pay, fair trade and a life of independence and dignity for girls and women from underprivileged communities. As quoted at the beginning of this essay, it’s a basic human rights issue.

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