By Janice Grover-Roosa
The term “sweatshop” is commonly used to describe workplaces filled with poor people from developing countries. Sweatshops are further distinguished by reports of unsafe working conditions, socially unacceptable labor practices, and little to no environmental protection standards. In 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed 1,130 workers and yet the connection between the exploitation of impoverished people and the newest fashion trends doesn’t seem to resonate in the minds of the typical U.S. or Western European consumer. The inability of the Western consumer to perceive the injustices and outright abuse suffered by garment workers is due, in part, to the carefully constructed narrative propagated by the corporations that stand to profit. Their rhetoric depicts garment workers as “better off” because of fast fashion and portrays them as people who have other employment alternatives- as people who choose to work in garment factories. To understand this industry, however, it’s important to acknowledge the marginalized voices of the workers themselves. Garment workers have begun to speak up about their circumstances and the language they use to describe their existence sounds less like someone excited about upward mobility and opportunity and more like a desperate enslaved person.
In Andrew Morgan’s 2015 documentary film entitled The True Cost, several individuals representing the business side of the fast fashion industry describe the benefits of “low wage labor”. In the film, Benjamin Powell, Director of the Free Market Institute, discusses the benefits of low wage manufacturing,
So, this low wage manufacturing or [he mutters] so called sweatshops, they’re not just the least bad job workers have today … Your proximate causes of development are physical capital, technology, and human capital or [he mutters] skills of the workers. When sweatshops come to these countries they bring all three to these workers… These are places where people choose to work, admittedly from a bad set of other options.
This matter of fact, entitled, and inhumane view of the benefits of low wage labor is supported by this statement by Kate Bell-Young, former sourcing manager at Joe Fresh, “Does it bother me that people are working in a factory making clothes for Americans and Europeans, that that’s how they’re spending their lives? Um, no. They’re doing a job, there are a lot worse things they could be doing.” Statements like the ones above acknowledge humanity in the bleakest way. This kind of language presumes that merely surviving is akin to living and that poor people can’t, or shouldn’t, expect more out of life than survival. This message might be more easily digested if the burden was shared by people around the globe but because the fast fashion industry thrives on the vulnerability of impoverished people and corrupt governments, it doesn’t.
To add to this narrative about fast fashion it is important to understand the way garment workers perceive their working conditions rather than only relying on the statements of fashion executives. Shima Akhter, a garment worker in Bangledesh was interviewed in the “True Cost” documentary as well; this is how she describes her circumstances,
There is no limit to the struggle of the Bangladeshi [garment workers]. We go to the factory and work really hard all day and with the hard labor we make clothing and that’s what people wear. People have no idea how difficult it is for us to make the clothing they only buy it and wear it. I believe these clothes are produced by our blood. … It’s very painful for us. I don’t want anyone wearing anything produced by our blood. …I don’t want an owner like the owner of Rana Plaza to take such risk and force the workers to work in such conditions. I want better working conditions … so no more workers die, so that no more mothers lose their child.
Shima is obviously working under duress and is pleading with consumers to be aware of the suffering garment workers endure. The language Shima uses evokes the language of an enslaved person. She refers to owners of factories as owners of garment workers when she says “I don’t want an owner like the owner of Rana Plaza”. Shima is imploring viewers to recognize the hardships of garment workers at the hands of these modern slave owners.
In Linda Brent’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl the narrator says, “What does he know of the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations? of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders? of young girls dragged down into moral filth? of pools of blood around the whipping post (Jacobs 82).” The words in this passage are strikingly similar to Shima’s:
How is it that a Bangladeshi garment worker’s language in 2013 is so similar to the language of an enslaved person writing in the United States in 1861? What’s more, how is it that consumers in the United States so readily abhor our history of slavery yet choose to listen to the industry, or the slave owner, rather than the worker when considering where to purchase their clothing?
And what about the consumer? Where does the consumer fit into this system? Haul videos, videos in which shoppers show off the cheap clothing they’ve recently purchased, are one of the most popular types of videos on YouTube. In a 2013 story entitled Showing off Shopping Sprees, Fashion ‘Haulers’ Cash in Online, NPR reported there were 700,000 haul videos on YouTube with about 34,000 new uploads occurring each month. A short perusal of these haul videos demonstrates a mindless frenzy to consume with no thought to the lives that produced any one of the ephemeral garments showcased. The haulers featured in the NPR story describe their shopping sprees with phrases like “I don’t know why I even bought this I don’t like it that much” and “These were so cheap you can throw just throw them away and get new ones.”
Where is the awareness and activism of the most powerful force in the fast fashion chain? Where are the abolitionists? If consumers demanded workers be provided the same labor standards, working conditions, and environmental regulations that those in the Western world enjoy what would the lives of garment workers look like? What would their narrative sound like? It’s hard to understand why the most educated body of consumers in history ignore the suffering of garment workers, it’s even harder to consider that this ignorance may be perpetuated by privilege and racism but what other explanation is there? The bottom line is that when consumers purchase items produced under slave like conditions, we’re wearing racism. We are making a visible statement that says my life and wealth is more valuable than your life and your lack of wealth. I am entitled to buy new things; you are here to make that possible for me. When we wear clothes produced by fast fashion, we are visibly saying “I own you”.
Jacobs, Harriet A., Nell Irvin Painter, and John S. Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print. Penguin Classics .
“Showing off Shopping Sprees, Fashion ‘Haulers’ Cash in Online”. NPR. All Things Considered, 14 Mar. 2013. Radio.
The True Cost. Dir. Morgan, Andrew, Michael Ross, Lucy Siegle, et al. Bullfrog Films, 2015; 2015.