Until I started traveling abroad to work with clothing manufacturers, I hadn't put a lot of thought behind the actual hands that made my clothes. It was during my travels to India that I started to become enamored with the process of physically making each garment. Watching these people, some true experts who had done these jobs for decades, was incredible and it smacked me in the face to realize how much I was taking my closet for granted.
The clothes you're wearing right now have most likely been touched by dozens of people. From laying out the fabric, to dying, cutting, stitching, putting on buttons, tags, the whole works - it requires a lot of people!
While I was in India working with a manufacturer, I learned about the raging sexual violence issues in India and within the garment manufacturing industry (for clarification - the manufacturers I've worked for have been safe spaces in my experience and to the best of my knowledge). I began to dig deeper and learn more about the garment industry in other countries, and I'm not going to lie to you - it's very disturbing.
It's Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2021 so I want to talk about two serious problems that are created by fast fashion -
Fast fashion usually has an affordable price tag - meaning that there is less money to go to the dozens of hands that made your one piece of clothing. Workers in fast fashion factories are exploited to work very long hours for ridiculously low wages to help meet greedy profit margins (we're not here to place the blame on "the consumer demands" - the corporations are the ones to hold responsible)
Female garment workers are frequently experiencing sexual assault within the workplace. They are being sexually exploited in order to keep their jobs or just simply receive their due wages. There is a really in-depth article here by The Guardian about sexual assault in denim factories.
The majority of garment workers who are doing the most laborious, low-paid work are females...and the majority of their supervisors are male. These women often find themselves desperate for work in order to keep their families fed, and male supervisors are exploiting them for sex. The problem has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, with fast-fashion companies cancelling billions of dollars in orders. Many orders partially completed or finished, factories were required to destroy the garments by fast-fash companies. It cost factories tons, and as production slowed, the increasing desperation to keep a job led to and increase in sexual assault and violence within these workplaces.
The power imbalance is obvious, and yes, putting female supervisors in charge is also an important step, but I think that the root of this issue goes back to the low wages/long work hours required by fast fashion. If workers were provided a fair wages across the industry, it would give them more ability to demand better working conditions. It will allow them the financial ability to walk away from toxic work environments. Let me show you how.
I am going to create two scenarios for you. Please don't get hung up
on the actual dollar figures - the current wages and living wages are different in every area, however some workers really are making only a few dollars a day.
Scenario 1: There are 10 factories in my city. I work at one that pays $5/day to work 8+ hours. The other factories all pay about the same. This barely affords me to feed my family, let alone transportation so I have to walk to work. One day I come in and my boss says I must have sex with him in order to keep my job. I've already left 5 other factories because of this issue. I cannot go for several days without pay, and I have no time to look for another job. Regardless, the situation doesn't feel like it will be better anywhere else.
Scenario 2: There are 10 factories in my city. I work at one that pays $5/hour to work an 8 hour day. The other factories pay about the same amount. With this wage, I am able to afford food for my family as well as transportation to and from work. The extra amount of time and money allows me to be less stressed out, get better sleep, and do things I enjoy. I have even picked up a class to help my business skills. In turn, this has made me a more rounded employee. One day I come in and my boss says I must have sex with him in order to keep my job. I'm now more educated and I have a little money set aside, so I will quit and find a job somewhere that values me.
I know that scenario 2 makes it seem like a snap of the fingers and *viola* solved - it won't be that quick, but we have to start at some point. We have to start paying and protecting our garment workers - ultimately giving them a better life that they deserve.
So how can YOU personally help?
Do a quick search on your favorite brands - how do they treat their workers?
I like using https://goodonyou.eco/ to see if a brand is ethical and eco friendly!
Call out brands who have exploitative practices - write them, tweet them, and ask the tough questions.
Sign petitions demanding action and donate to organizations like https://payupfashion.com/
Shop preloved clothing whenever you can - whether it's from Depop, consignment shops, local thrifts, or your grandmas collection of 80's track suits. Sustainable fashion isn't always accessible for everyone, but every single effort counts!
Let me know your thoughts on how to reduce the amount of sexual violence within the clothing manufacturing industry in the comments below - or share your fav place to donate!