How the garment industry is failing its female workers

your guide to sustainability: explore fashion

14 november  '22

Reading time: 5 minutes

Workers in the garment industry are often subjected to terrible conditions. The very same industry has the power to drastically change their lives for the better. This article attempts to answer the question: are women garment workers exploited or empowered?

Words by Dina Abedini Niknam

Learn how the garment industry is failing its female workers and how you can take action.

Picture by Austrian National Library

The garment industry is one of the greatest grey areas humanity has produced. Often upholding terrible working conditions and low pay, this industry is also mostly worked by women in less economically developed countries. Despite the often inhumane conditions, the female dominated workforce continues to grow. Fashion Revolution writes that to these women “it’s about moving out of poverty, being able to provide children with education, and to become more independent and grow as an individual”. As clearly stated, unfortunately, the way the industry currently exists creates a dichotomy between what we hope to achieve with it, and what often is the case. These statistics forever linked the question of exploitation vs empowerment with the garment industry. It is great, of course, to provide young women with the opportunity to work for a better education and to support their families. The problem arises, however, with the fact that these workers are more often than not underpaid and must put in incredible amounts of overtime, as well as suffer through terrible working environments. Even though it is true that with time, certain places did increase their wages, as reported in the 2013 Bloomberg article Bangladesh Raises Minimum Wage for Garment Workers After Unrest, it took a lot of effort to get there, and many others have yet to follow suit. 

The only real way we as consumers can encourage change in the garment industry is by 1. being vocal about the issue and 2. making conscious decisions about what brands we support, and in turn increasing the demand for ethical brands who treat their workers fairly. To achieve the latter, we require transparency in the industry. If we are aware of whom we support, and what kind of conditions their workers are exposed to, we as consumers can make the necessary decisions that can impact thousands of people. This is a struggle, however, as a large number of major brands are not transparent in their supply chains and production processes. This hinders our ability to distinguish an ethical brand from a green washed one. 

The Bangladesh disaster

Have you ever heard about the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh? BBC News reported on the incident and stated that the death toll exceeded 1,000 individuals, as well as quoted Army Captain Shahnewaz Zakaria, writing that “most are female garment workers.” Further, it was reported that the Rana Plaza housed multiple factories, and that a day before the fatal collapse, cracks had been identified in the building, however, after a brief evacuation, the workers were instructed to get back to their duties. This awful catastrophe is only one of the atrocious ways the garment industry fails its workers.  

Learn how the garment industry is failing its female workers and how you can take action.

Picture by A.M. Ahad

Jeyasre Kathiravel killed in a H&M supplier factory

India is one of the largest producers and exporters in the garment industry “with an export turnover of $37.11 Bn.. Despite it being 2021, unacceptable and outright ghastly instances do not cease to occur. The 20-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel was killed by her supervisor at Natchi Apparels. The body of the young garment worker at the H&M supplier factory in Tamil Nadu was found on the 5th of January 2021 near her home. The Guardian writes that “according to police reports, a man working as a supervisor at Natchi Apparels has reportedly confessed and been charged with her abduction and murder”. Kathiravel’s family claims their daughter suffered months of sexual harassment prior to her murder. The article also quoted Thivya Rakini; she is state president of the union that represents women working at Natchi Apparels, Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU): “Her family and coworkers have told us that Jeyasre was being harassed at work but nothing was done [...] Many workers we have spoken to say they are facing the same problems but either don’t know how to report grievances against their supervisors or say they are afraid if they speak out they will face retaliation”. Furthermore, Jeyasre Kathiravel’s family was forced into accepting financial compensation and signing a document that releases Eastman Exports, the factory owner, of any responsibility. 

H&M is launching an independent investigation into the killing of the young garment worker and firmly stands by the statements that they have zero tolerance for gender-based violence. Their actions do not support their words, however, as this is not an isolated case. Corporations such as H&M may support equality on the world stage, but when it comes to behind the scenes, their supply chain and their supplier factories, they fail to make sure their ‘own values’ are being carried out. People can argue that, well then why do these women not just quit their jobs? The answer is simple, more often than not, work in the garment industry is the only one available to them. The Human Rights Watch writes of a group of eleven women garment workers who wrote a letter to their local union complaining of sexual harassment. Speaking of the union leaders, the article states that the leaders said that the women did not file a formal complaint because they “feared retaliation both at the factory and back home. Being unmarried and from conservative families, the women were dependent on their families’ permission to work in the factories. If their families learned of the harassment they endured, they risked being told not to work outside the house”. 

Learn how the garment industry is failing its female workers and how you can take action.

Picture by Remy Gieling

Where the empowerment comes from

The above is where the idea of empowerment comes up. Despite the low pay, despite the terrible conditions, and despite the harassment they experience, these women want a chance at a better life, a chance at a better education, a chance at a better future, and the sad reality is that working in the garment industry is often their only real opportunity. Jeyasre Kathiravel was the first of her family who stood a chance of getting a higher education and making it out of the garment industry, her mother shares. The achievement is not utterly impossible, as Reuters shares the story of Sadeka Begum, a garment factory worker from Bangladesh who became “one of the first graduates of a special university programme that aims to inspire female workers to become leaders and boost women’s rights across industries”. That is why we need transparency in the garment industry, to be able to identify and prevent horrible cases from taking place and to support these women. This is also where intersectional environmentalism comes into play. The effects of the fashion and garment industry on the environment are steadily gaining more attention and environmental activism is growing in numbers thanks to movements such as Fridays for Future. Intersectional environmentalism emphasises the protection of both: the planet and the people. Climate justice and social justice go hand in hand and we need to be able to acknowledge that we have to protect each other. Humanity is at its strongest when we are united. 

A call to action

We need to continue to be vocal and hold large corporations accountable. It is not an easy feat but it is the only way we can achieve transparency in the garment industry and fight for both climate and social justice. There is a chance for empowerment for women in the garment industry, however, currently they are largely being exploited and subjected to unacceptable and downright horrible circumstances. Alone, there is not much one can do, but united, we stand a chance at progress. The Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) released a report called Empowering Female Workers in the Apparel Industry, where they discuss what businesses can do to empower their women workers. The BSR writes; “Many of the barriers to women’s economic empowerment are systemic. The apparel sector can influence policy change and drive industry-wide progress by sharing knowledge and expertise, and supporting policies proven to advance women’s empowerment and gender equality”. It is known that the fashion industry carries a lot of power, but perhaps it is less known that it can directly influence gender equality and policymaking. The garment industry has the power to change millions of lives; the time for it to use its power for good is long overdue.

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