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Picture this: you begin your working day early in the morning as the sun rises, to disappear in a decrepit building which is only marginally more welcoming than your boss. Every day you live in fear of abuse and violence, working in dirty and unhygienic conditions. The place where you work is a risk in itself; fire or collapse is playing on your mind as you sit down to work for £2 a day. As you sew, you imagine the people who will wear what you make; ‘they’re not black like me, they’re fairer and very pretty’ and you know that they would only be worn once before they are discarded.
These are a collation of the accounts of Bangladeshi workers from an article for the charity War on Want and Vogue’s ‘Osman Yousefzada Meets Bangladeshi Garment Workers In An Illuminating Film’. Through these perspectives, we can catch a glimpse of the consequences of our greed and more pertinently, understand that this is a humanitarian issue that cannot be alienated for the sake of economic prosperity; an argument that has fuelled the existence of sweatshops for decades. Yet, the story doesn’t end here.
It is needless to say that Covid-19 has been a difficult time for many of us but while we adapt to the pending economic difficulties by restricting our spending habits, the impacts this could have upon those dependent on our huge consumption of goods could be detrimental. Efforts to combat Fast Fashion have captured the hearts of many well-meaning fashionistas and similar re-writings of the same advice has covered the pages of magazines and blogs alike. The sustainable alternatives of recycling or upcycling are great for the environment and expensive sustainable products are perfect for those with money to spare and guilt to satisfy, but what is being done for the people who are suffering on the production lines?
The fight against sweatshops has, at best, been half-hearted. We are so entrenched in our way of life that instigating real, long-term change seems impossible. The continued existence of sweatshops is case and point.
Last summer, I wrote a piece on sweatshops and in it I drew attention to the misinformation in which fuels the assumptions that they are ‘better than nothing’. However, I also highlighted that this is not simply an issue in so-called third-world countries but far more local; drawing on Leicester as an example. That was when I first read about the UK sweatshops and I was abhorred by how this could be allowed to happen here. Though as I reflected, I realised that it shouldn’t matter where they are; no matter what the country or its GDP, sweatshops cannot be justified. Yet, it has once again taken the problem to feel close to home for the mainstream media and the general public to feel motivated enough to take action. So in response to this and the knowledge of the impact that cancelled orders were having on workers, #PayUp was born; calling for companies to pay for the cancelled orders to help those who have been furloughed or lost their jobs.
However, I am cynical: I fear that this will just be another botched attempt, more about our conscience than genuine care. At the end of it we will shrug and say, ‘well I tried’ in a care-free, dismissive tone, accepting defeat casually because there are no real consequences for us. While #PayUp is well-intentioned, solely blaming the companies is unfair and not conducive to the ultimate goal and ending sweatshops. After all, it is our greed that has fuelled these systems and whilst they of course have responsibility, we, as consumers, do as well. It is in danger of being a convenient way to call for change but not to do the work that change entails.
As companies such as the Boohoo Group PLC struggle in the deepening economic difficulties, the news that investors are backing out is perhaps the strongest sign that we may see some change. Yet, such companies are so far removed from their production line that tracing the full story can be difficult. Our ever-increasing demands have called for this complex system and so, whilst there is a clear lack of diligence on the companies part, the solution is not as simple as it may seem. It calls for two things: for us to demonstrate to companies that we want a simplification of the process and for us to facilitate that by buying less. Carry Somers, organiser of the #whomademyclothes, in a Vogue article entitled ‘Why Do We Still Know So Little About How Our Clothes Are Made?’ says, ‘[w]e’re seeing a lack of information from brands in terms of the real impact [their policies] are making on the workers in the supply chain and on the environment.’
Problems still remain. In Leicester, the workers have UK rights and the workers are able to find alternative employment. In Bangladesh and other such countries, the problem is far different. The closure of factories due to Covid-19 may have protected the workers from illness but there is nothing to protect them from starvation and the continued existence of sweatshops has made it impossible for competitors to flourish: new companies simply cannot compete with the cost-effectiveness of sweatshops. So whilst #PayUp may fix a part of the problem in the immediate future, if we fail to see that it won’t do much in the long run then there is little hope of change.
So, are there any new solutions? Well, not really. The same advice stands; we should be looking to invest in clothes and place greater personal value on what we own. Our being prepared to spend more but less often can begin to change the way that large corporations function. We really do have the power to hold brands accountable and call for those who have shirked the responsibilities of caring about their supply chains to become more transparent.
It is impractical to ask you all to stay away from these cheaper companies because the majority of us can’t afford to spend large sums on a new dress. Yes, spend less often and do really think about whether you really want or need what you are buying but more than that, don’t let that niggling guilt go away because you’ve signed the petition. If you are really sure you want to buy something let’s not banish that thought that says ‘should I be supporting them?’ or when it arrives don’t push away the concerns at the obscene amount of plastic too. That voice is good and it’s that voice that can create change. If we all listen and actually consider our actions and their consequences, we can then begin to instigate real change around the world.