Popaganda: Class War, but Make It Fashion

In the fifth episode in Popaganda’s GLAMOUR season, host Carmen Rios investigates the labor crises facing women who work in fashion’s supply chain—and challenges listeners to become part of a better fashion economy.

Through conversations with union leaders, anti-poverty activists and pro-fashion protestors—Ethan Snow from Unite Here, Ruth Ogier from War on Want, and Sarah Ditty from Fashion Revolution, respectively—Carmen assesses the landscape facing women who work in the garment industry, and the urgent need for a global labor movement that guarantees them their basic rights and dignities. She also looks back at women’s activism targeting the fashion industry over the last century, and lays out with optimism the path forward toward a feminist fashion industry.

Fashion is fueling the marginalization, abuse, and exploitation of some of the world’s most vulnerable women—and disasters from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to the Rana Plaza collapse illustrate how much risk garment workers take in an attempt to make a life for themselves. But if feminists zoom in on the root causes of global poverty and put their money where their protest signs are, they can join the growing movement for global worker power and rights.


Photo courtesy of Fashion Revolution

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[theme music]
CARMEN RIOS: Welcome back to Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast. I’m your host, feminist superstar Carmen Rios, and today we’re continuing our GLAMOUR season with a deep dive into the human crisis facing the fashion industry.
Earlier in the season, I talked to three feminist fashion bloggers about how to get dressed without getting depressed about the damage the fashion industry was doing to the planet. But all of us kept coming back to an equally urgent cause for feminist alarm when it comes to the things we wear: the exploitation of some of the world’s most vulnerable women throughout fashion’s supply chain. The fight for a better fashion industry has long been a feminist one.
[recorded clip from a performance of the stage play, Up From the Ashes]
ACTRESS: Now, for a moment, let’s say that you…well, let’s call you Rose, the most popular name of the time period. You work at foot pedal machine [foot pedal machine slowly, steadily clicks and whirs] for a few years, stitching away at the rate of 34 stitches per minute. You really can’t make any mistakes, or your pay would be docked. Then, after a few years, the foot pedals are replaced by an electric machine with a rate of 3,000 stitches per minute. [machine revs] You are still a necessary cog in the great fashion machine. After all, you run the fabric under the needle. But here’s the thing: you don’t get any breaks. You work for 14 hours because time is money. Aw, you need to go to the bathroom?! You don’t even dare ask the foreman. And no legislation had even been dreamed off that would regulate basic hygiene. You have your job, which is good news. But if you make one button fall that ruins the shirtwaist, your pay would be docked. Needle go through your finger? [Gasps.] Keep on working.
CARMEN: In 1911, 145 people died when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City. 600 people were working that day in what we would now call a sweatshop. 123 of those who died were women and girls, many of them immigrants working in tiny quarters at tightly-packed rows of sewing machines for 12 hours a day, with no days off for just $15 a week. They had tried to organize, striking in 1909 as members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union for better hours and pay. But the male factory owners chose instead to invest their money on hired cops, who carried the protestors off to prison, and bribes for politicians who were looking to action in the wake of their activism.
“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship,” socialist and union activist Rose Schneiderman declared at a memorial meeting of the Women’s Trade Union League in the wake of the fire. “We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting….We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers, and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us. Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable. I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can is by a strong working-class movement.”
And that’s exactly the movement that took shape after the fire: 80,000 people marched on 5th Avenue afterward to protest the conditions that led to the tragedy, forcing the hand of lawmakers. New York ended up establishing a Committee on Public Safety, headed up by Frances Perkins, and later a Factory Investigating Commission, of which she was also a member. The Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed months later, and efforts to pass legislation guaranteeing shorter work weeks was drafted. Ultimately, 38 labor laws were passed in New York State after the Factory Investigating Commission released its final report on the fire, mandating better building access, setting requirements for fireproofing and the installation of alarm systems and sprinklers, demanding better eating and bathroom facilities for workers, and limiting the hours that women and children could work. Politicians would come to also take up the mantle of standing with workers, including, infamously, FDR, who hired Perkins herself to famously lead the labor department during the New Deal.
That movement also continues today. But despite the progress it has won for workers domestically, women throughout fashion’s supply chain around the world are still fighting for their basic rights.
[recorded clip of Senator Elizabeth Warren presenting]
SENATOR WARREN: For years across the city, women factory workers and their allies had been sounding the alarm about dangerous and squalid conditions, fighting for shorter hours and higher pay. They protested. They went on strike. They got coverage in the press. Everyone knew about these problems. But the fat profits were making New York’s factory owners rich, and they had no plans to give that up. Instead of changing conditions at the factories, the owners worked their political conditions. They made campaign contributions and talked with their friends in the legislature. They greased the state government so thoroughly that nothing changed. Business owners got richer, politicians got more powerful, and working people paid the price. Does any of this sound familiar?! [Crowd cheers.]
CARMEN: The Clean Clothes Campaign estimates that women make up 80 percent of the 40 million workers in the global garment industry. And because of decisions guided by corporate greed, they’re put at particular risk of abuse, exploitation, and workplace discrimination and harassment. Companies purposefully source products from countries where labor protections are weak, where they aren’t required to provide maternity leave or a living wage, and where ensuring safe travel and accommodations at work isn’t their obligation or their concern. Often, these decisions mean factories are in places where worker protest is simultaneously legally suppressed or unprotected. By employing some of the planet’s most economically vulnerable women to work in the industry, fashion’s leaders are fueling systems that prize the bottom line over the basic health, safety, and well-being of the women of the world.
SARAH DITTY: Poor working conditions in garment factories and textile factories is not a new phenomenon. I mean, this has been going on since industrial, you know, the industrialization started happening. In fact, you know, a lot of the kind of workers’ rights that we have now in the U.S. and in the U.K. and other parts of the world exist because of the fight that garment workers and textile workers put up to get things like eight-hour working days or safer working conditions or unionization, and all sorts of other things. So, I think that’s important to point out.
CARMEN: That’s Sarah Ditty, global policy director at Fashion Revolution, a coalition of designers, academics, writers, business leaders, policymakers, brands, retailers, marketers, producers, makers, workers, and fashion lovers who believe in a fashion industry that values people, the environment, creativity, and profit in equal measure.
SARAH: And I think the other important thing to point out too is that, it is a very woman-dominated industry. You know, a lot of the people, the vast majority of the people, making our clothes are women, and especially kind of young women. And I think that that kind of defines what some of the power struggles are going on in the fashion industry. You know, a lot of these issues really are patriarchal issues, and they are feminist issues. And I think it’s important to put that lens on, on everything that, all the challenges that do go on in the global fashion industry.
CARMEN: Those challenges once again added up to tragedy almost exactly one century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, when we were forced to reckon with a more contemporary manmade disaster uniquely impacting women. This time, it didn’t happen in our own backyard, but it became a rallying cry that was heard around the world.
[news clip plays]
NEWS ANCHOR: The horrifying collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh has sparked serious questions about the use of sweatshops and cheap labor. Famous fashion brands like Benneton and Mango have been implicated in the disaster. But many more companies, including here in Australia, source their products from Bangladesh. Now, they’re under serious pressure to guarantee that workers aren’t exploited or forced to work in deadly conditions. Hayden Cooper reports.
[recording from the Rana Plaza building rubble, filled with people all talking, yelling to one another as they retrieve workers’ bodies, then rubble crashes]
REPORTER: From the twisted wreck of concrete and rubble, voices of survivors have now faded. [A family member sobs.] And more than 380 bodies of Bangladeshi workers have been retrieved. [Sirens in the background, a woman sobbing.] The heavy toll has reverberated across the globe, not least in the world of fashion.
CARMEN: In 2013, 1,134 people died, and approximately 2,500 were injured when the Rana Plaza building in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh collapsed, making the tragedy the deadliest structural failure accident in modern human history and the deadliest garment factory disaster ever. The eight-story building was the site of many businesses: factories, a bank, and smaller shops. But when cracks were discovered in its foundation, everyone who worked there got sent home except the garment workers, who were instead ordered to come into work the next day. That was the day the building collapsed.
SARAH: The Rana Plaza factory collapse was a real call to arms to us. It was a moment where we just thought enough is enough. You know, all these years of corporate social responsibility and ethical trade programs, and yet still, one of the biggest industrial disasters in history was still possible. And things weren’t changing. They weren’t changing fast enough at least. And we wanted to make sure that the Rana Plaza factory collapse just wasn’t more than just a quick moment in time, that it wasn’t just one news cycle, that we really used this moment to kind of galvanize people, raise much wider public awareness about the stories and the people and the impacts behind our clothes. And that’s how Fashion Revolution was born.
CARMEN: Fashion Revolution works to unite individuals and institutions in the sector to change how clothes are sourced, produced, and consumed and foster collaboration throughout fashion’s value chain. That means a major focus for the organization now is increasing transparency throughout fashion’s supply chain and calling for accountability from the most powerful people in the industry to do right by its workers.
[recorded clip plays with pop music in the background]
HOST: Here we have a number of young designers who are all about transparency. They are opening their studios.
VOICE 1: I feel like fashion is really mysterious, and I think it’s good to demystify things and make them accessible to everybody.
VOICE 2: Connection between the people who make our clothes and the clothes that we wear is fundamental important to me, when we actually think of the human cost of clothes.
VOICE 3: I think it’s actually really bringing awareness, from production to consumer, all the way along the chain. They’re making people think about who made their clothes. We know so much now, so it’d be a shame if people didn’t think about it.
SARAH: One of the big things that really enabled this Rana Plaza tragedy to happen was the lack of transparency. So, many of the brands whose clothes were being made in those factories in Rana Plaza didn’t even know that their products were being made there. And if they don’t even know where their products are being made there, how are we as consumers expected to know and understand the things that we’re buying and not kind of unwittingly then supporting really terrible conditions and risking people’s lives through the dollars that we’re spending on the clothes we buy from these big brands. And so, for us, we really thought, okay, we need much more transparency in the industry. We need to kind of really shine a spotlight on who these people are working in supply chains. And what are their relationships between brands and agents and suppliers and the workers in their supply chain? And shine a light on and who’s really, who’s accountable at every step of that chain of production.
The supply chains behind our clothes are very complex. They’re very long. You know, the garments that we wear will go through a lot of different stages of processing and therefore, lots of different kinds of actors and pairs of hands, right from the kind of farm level where cotton is grown or the fiber level where a synthetic fiber might be created, and even the inputs behind that, all the way through to where it’s stitched and packaged, to being transported then to a warehouse or to a shop where you’d find it on the rack, hanging on the rack, and you buy it. So, and they’re very fragmented. Often one process, one small process, might be done in one factory in one country, and then another small process might happen somewhere else. So, and the longer and more complex these supply chains are, the more opportunity there is to kind of pass the buck of responsibility and to also hide things in the complexity: hide poor working conditions and just always kind of put the responsibility on another actor’s piece of the puzzle, so to speak. So, that’s one big issue. And then once you get to brand level or consumer level, having that visibility into exactly what’s happening in every stage of your supply chain is kind of complicated. So that’s one big thing. That’s why we’re always really trying to focus on having greater transparency. Because obviously, if you can’t see it, you don’t know it’s going on. It’s really hard to understand.
CARMEN: And obviously, what’s going on in fashion supply chain is, well, pretty bad. The landscape facing garment workers around the globe is rife with indignities. Women are working unrestricted hours, sleeping on factory floors, and they’re still not earning enough money to live.
SARAH: I mean, otherwise, when it comes to more specific working conditions, some of the biggest challenges are around, I mean, the first thing is around a global organized labor movement. In the U.S. and even in parts of Europe, since the’ 80s, since Thatcher, since Reagan, since, neoliberal economic model really took root and became the prevailing way we organize our economies, labor movements have been kind of dismantled in America and Europe, but also around the world. And that means there’s a lack of capacity and sometimes even repression and oppression of trade unions and workers trying to organize themselves to have collective power. And so, that’s a huge challenge. In a lot of the places where our clothes are made, in places like Bangladesh or Cambodia or even India, China, and even in places in South America, and sometimes even on our own doorstep, in the U.K. and the U.S., the freedom of association, collective bargaining just doesn’t really exist. Or it’s really difficult to do for a variety of reasons. And then that leaves workers quite powerless in their ability to speak up when things are going wrong, when they’re facing issues, to speak up for better conditions, to speak up against discrimination, to speak up for higher wages. So, it’s a fundamental human right. It’s enshrined by the United Nations. It’s a right that’s been ratified by countries all over the world. And it’s just, it’s not being protected and respected as it should be.
Some of the other big challenges are around well, around wages, which is related to that. So, wages are what garment workers and other textile and supply chain workers in the global fashion industry are paid. It’s typically very, very low. Often it’s poverty-level pay. And that’s true in a lot of the, you know, what you’d probably consider overseas places, so Bangladesh and Cambodia and Vietnam and Honduras and El Salvador and other places. But that’s also true of manufacturers, garment manufacturers in the garment district in L.A. or in New York or in London or other parts of the U.K. So, wages are a huge issue, and I think a lot of that is the way that the industry is structured. Fast fashion has become very, very popular. You know, consumers have come to expect very cheap garments being made very quickly. So, we buy them really, really frequently.
We buy them for cheap prices, and therefore, brands then wanna make those products very, very cheap in a very, very cheap way and with a very, very quick turnaround and in order to kind of get that from product design to the shelf or on your screen, in order for you to buy a very quickly. And as a result, that really pushes prices down on suppliers, so they’re constantly to keep up, they’re constantly trying to offer the cheapest price. Like they’re trying to produce things as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible and where they don’t really have that many places to cut corners. So, where they ended up cutting corners is often when it comes to garment workers’ wages or textile workers wages. So, the people who make our clothes are really getting quite a bad deal out of the way that we typically buy clothing. So, that’s a huge, that’s another huge problem.
And then another thing that’s really quite sad and another big issue is just the amount of gender-based violence and abuse that goes on in garment factories around the world. I would say it’s pretty safe to say that in a lot of the places where our clothes are made, the lower-paid jobs typically tend to be done by women. The factory manager roles or factory owner roles and things like that typically tend to be men. Sometimes there’s like a very strong kind of patriarchal culture and very defined gender norms going on in those places, which spills into the workplace. And unfortunately, it just means that a lot of the women making our clothes end up facing kind of gender-based abuse, harassment, and violence at work. And it’s pretty prevalent in the industry.
CARMEN: The only solution to this crisis is more action, and more sustained action, in solidarity with workers. But this time, it can’t take shape in just a major city or in just one country. This time, the movement has to be global.
RUTH OGIER: Yeah. I mean, in terms of the kind of the global garment sector War on Want has understood and has worked and campaigned on that because it is an exemplifier of a globally exploitative industry where you see, you know, we talk around trillions of dollars that it’s worth. But those profits aren’t coming down to benefit in the workers. I mean, we have upwards of 60 million people working in the sector, predominantly women and predominantly in Global South countries that are producing that wealth, but they are not actually getting the benefit of that. So, you have the issue around wages that what people are earning is poverty wages. It’s incredibly long hours. There’s increasing pressure around productivity and targets to meet the needs of these international brands. A massive issue around unfair dismissals, unsafe working conditions, and really squeezing the rights, fundamental rights, around freedom of association and organizing as workers, either in trade unions or workers associations, which is perpetuating that exploitative system so that working conditions for the majority of workers in the global garment sector are still keeping them in poverty. Whereas actually, from our point of view, work is around the dignity and ability to have a decent life and meet your and your family’s needs from employment. And this sector does not provide that.
CARMEN: That’s Ruth Ogier, head of international programmes at War on Want, a dynamic and radical organization that runs hard-hitting campaigns against the root causes of poverty and human rights violations, with one major area of focus being the fashion industry.
RUTH: Yeah, I mean, in Bangladesh obviously the accord that emerged from the Rana Plaza disaster is an example of a, you know, it’s sort of enforceable agreements. The situation in Bangladesh still is that January last year, what you saw is 50,000+ workers protesting peacefully and being met with tear gas and rubber bullets because they were protesting around minimum wages. So, that is a binding agreement, yes, that focused on factory safety. But still, in Bangladesh, a minimum wage is, it’s approximately about $190 USD a month, what unions were asking for. And that was still less than what was considered to be a living wage. What they got was half of that. So, whilst there are binding agreements that have addressed some of the issues around factory safety, a lot of those still have to be implemented in terms of the works. And it’s still, there are other areas around, as I say, wages, around gender discrimination, sexual harassment, that still factors that need to be addressed. Bangladesh is second or third biggest exporter. It also appears in the top 10 of the International Trade Union Congress list of the worst countries for workers, as does Turkey and other major producer of the garments for fashion sector.
CARMEN: You talked before about enforceable agreements, and obviously, this is this really massive global issue. And I feel like because it’s global, it’s more complicated to regulate, it’s more complicated to mobilize and get people who are all in. What would you say have been some of the major challenges around harnessing the momentum and really creating those tangible enforceable agreements and accords?
RUTH: Yeah. Yeah, that is a good point. And I think also that as I mentioned earlier, yes, there are things that, you know, we can talk about a UN binding treaty. We also know that already, as I said, there are human rights enshrined in constitution and laws that are not fulfilled. So, there is another question around if we get that, how does that become a reality? So, one thing is, where were the enforceable agreements? Is how does that take place? What is it that we demand that doesn’t just push, still, the pressures for the [unclear] line to suppliers but actually challenges these profit margins and a better share, first gen?
So, yeah, so looking at national legislation for example, to as series of national legislation no matter where a company is based, that it would have to be transparent about its supply chain. That’s a key thing there. ‘Cause then you get the ability to put together that global picture of where our clothes are being produced, where big brands located in different countries. But if national legislation requires that transparency, that’s a key first step. That allows investigation into those supply chains. And yes, then looking at the mechanisms, the formulas that would ensure, for example, a living wage, but a living wage that doesn’t just simply squeeze the global South supplier sector more but is more around a fair share of the profits.
CARMEN: Globalization has put women worldwide at risk in the garment sector, but American workers are hurting, too because of shrinking opportunities and a loss of collective power. That’s why union leaders are intent on expanding the labor movement that took the U.S. by storm over the last century beyond its borders.
ETHAN SNOW: So, the landscape is…it’s barely even a landscape. [Chuckles.] It’s like a small yard, basically. It has really, the industry itself, has just withered down to such a small profile. In New England, where our union is based, where my union, my branch of United Here is specifically based, the textile and clothing industry, they’re two separate kind of industries, but we kinda refer to them together. This was the center for that kind of manufacturing in the United States. And now, I mean, we, at one point, our union represented close to 40,000 workers from Maine down to Connecticut. Today, we’ve got about 10,000, and they’re not all, and actually the majority aren’t, even in either of those industries. As those industries have kind of moved overseas, we’ve had to, in order to stay alive and to stay relevant as a union, we’ve had to branch off into other related industries and some other unrelated industries.
And in terms of women’s apparel, women’s clothing across the country, I mean, that was the segment of the industry that really got hit first with globalization. And to this day, up until this point, there’s practically, virtually no women’s apparel production happening on a large scale. So, it’s a really, it’s an industry that was affected more by globalization and outsourcing than any other industry, bar none. And today, we’re really left with those employers who see that manufacturing their products in the United States gives them some kind of competitive advantage in the market, or they’re doing some kind of niche manufacturing in terms of their specific product that requires them to stay in the United States, those are the employers in the industry that are left today.
CARMEN: That’s Ethan Snow, the chief of staff and political director of the New England Joint Board of UNITE HERE. His union organizes garment workers domestically, but he increasingly sees the potential for global synergy and ways for workers across borders to demonstrate solidarity and make demands together.

CARMEN: What’s the impact on workers of that kind of increasing globalization? How has that changed the conditions or the experiences that workers are having here?

ETHAN: Well, workers used to have, even up until the ’80s, where there was still quite a few, you know, the industry was still present in a somewhat significant way. I mean, if you were a garment worker in those days, in some of our big hub towns, hub cities where there were a lot of concentrated manufacturing manufacturers, you could, you had some power. Because you could, if you didn’t like your job, you could get up off your machine and just quit, walk across the street, and get another job right then and there that day. And where most of the factories operated on a piecework system, as long as you kept your speed up, as long as you kept your operation the same, you could continue to make the same amount of money. So, people had some power there beyond just having a union. Of course, the union gave people a lot more power.

But these days, people really have no option. If you’re a skilled garment worker, which there are fewer and fewer as the days go by, you’ve got very few options to have any kind of sustainable or long-term career. And that’s a problem for the remaining employers to find people who are skilled and who know how to do the work and who have some experience. So, you know, what that means for the union is, it’s harder and harder for us to negotiate contracts. I mean, it is harder and harder for us to negotiate contracts in any industry. But think about the idea of negotiating with an employer to whom it’s easier for them, they’ll certainly make more money, to produce what they’re producing elsewhere. So, we have to constantly walk that fine line in terms of how we’re representing people and how we’re negotiating contracts to ensure that we can protect our jobs, but also get some, win some gains for workers and get them the things that they deserve. So, it’s really kind of a unique position that we find ourselves.

We don’t have the luxury of being a union that represents one employer, and they can’t move anywhere, and they’re not facing any competition. The competition is monumental, and any day, they could decide this just isn’t worth it. You know, all of our competitors are elsewhere, and they’ve got a huge advantage over us in terms of labor costs, in terms of flexibility in a lot of different things. Why do we continue to operate in the United States? And like I said earlier, the employers that are left have realized, the ones that we do have left, they’re here because they’ve made the commitment to stay in the US for one reason or another. So, really for us, it’s a question of being able to hold onto what we have. And that said, we’ve been very successful in being able to hold on to the gains that we’ve made for workers in this industry, and then some. We’ve been able to win.

But these aren’t industries that are strong and robust that we’re able to win landmark contracts and settlements. We need to really be strategic and really kind of thoughtful about how we’re approaching negotiations, how we’re approaching this work here in the United States. Because it’s us and the employers, and no one’s backing us up. It just comes from the power that the workers have and our members. So, it’s really difficult, not gonna sugarcoat it in any way, because of the state of the industry. Now, if there were a whole lot of other non-union employers here in the United States that we could wage campaigns against and organize workers, then it’d be a different story. But where the industry is just so small, it’s really, really a difficult task.

CARMEN: The New England Joint Board has represented thousands of workers on the floors of factories and mills for over a century and helped some of the worst-treated workers in the U.S. win the labor rights and protections they deserve. Their history is rich with worker victories and leadership: In 1976, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the Textile Workers Union of America became the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union, and in 1995 that union joined forces with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Remember them? They’re the same union that fought for the Shirtwaist Factory employees. And together, those two unions started UNITE: the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees. Now, UNITE HERE is powered by the legacy of some of the most famous labor leaders in history and some of the most powerful forces that have ever fought for a feminist fashion industry. That’s why they know that the moment is ripe, one century after the Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Bread and Roses protest, for a garment sector uprising of a distinctly global variety.

ETHAN: I think just generally, there’s no substitute for worker solidarity, period. We could spend years trying to pass a specific policy on textile and garment import trade. We could do all kinds of things on policy, but there’s nothing that can substitute the power of workers organizing themselves. And so, what we tend to really focus on here is international union solidarity. You know, we’re fortunate to look back on our history in the United States and look at the history of the United States labor movement, how it formed, how it built itself, and how it contributed to building the middle class in the United States, and kinda learn those lessons and now look at where we’re at today and kind of learn those lessons. And so, I think it’s really incumbent upon US labor leaders and union members to reach out across the oceans and help to build the labor movements of some of these other countries and these developing nations, which we see bubbling up. We see a lot more action happening in places like China and Cambodia, Bangladesh and a lot of countries, which, many especially clothing industry employers fled to from the United States.

So, you know, I think the approach really needs to be one that is global, right? I think capital and employers are hypermobile in terms of they can just pick up, and then the next day they can be operating in Cambodia, in Vietnam, in wherever. And our systems, our political systems, our economic systems are set up to ensure that that can happen for employers in a way that’s as easy as possible for them. And the same is not true for labor, right? I mean, there’s very little communication between the different labor movements in the different countries, although there are some really robust and worthwhile efforts to do that. But we’re not as mobile as capital is. And that’s something that I think the labor movement in the United States really has to think about more if we wanna try to improve both our situation here in the United States, but also improve the working conditions and lives of workers across the globe.

CARMEN: Fashion Revolution has been supporting these types of transnational movements from the start, and they know that their potential is powerful.

SARAH: And so, by working together, by working collaboratively with other companies, with governments, with civil society groups, that they’re gonna be more likely to be able to solve a lot of these issues. And so, there are now quite a few of these sort of multi-stakeholder, again jargon, but like these multi-stakeholder initiatives that are going on bringing together different big brands and governments and interest groups and community groups and different NGOs and international unions as well together to try to solve some of these issues. And that probably is really the way forward. So, that’s happening when it comes to freedom of association. That’s happening when it comes to living wages.

So, for example, there’s an initiative at the moment called ACT, and it’s bringing together big brands, you know, you’re like H&M and Top Shop and a lot of these big brands together with Unions IndustriALL, which is the biggest kind of global union representing garment workers and then their affiliates in different countries together with industry, or sorry, employers in particular countries. And what they do is they get together in a particular country to advocate to that country’s government to kind of bring people together at the negotiating table to kind of agree how they’re gonna go about raising wages in that particular country, in that industry. And it’s really novel because it’s such a collaborative effort, but it’s also tackling it from a kind of industry-wide, countrywide level, which hasn’t really been tried before. A lot of the ways that wages have been addressed to this date has sort of been factory by factory. And there’s just so many factories and so many workers that it’s not really made a dent. And so, I think this is a really important step forward for trying to address the wages issue, which is just such a deeply politically economic thorny issue. So, I think collaborations, in that way, is really, really interesting and probably going to, at least hopefully, take some steps forward in raising wages for garment workers in the coming years.

CARMEN: Global worker power is really important. And it starts, strangely enough, at the top.

RUTH: Workers themselves are pushing those boundaries. And the extent to which we see companies and corporations trying to curtail those rights around freedom of association, organizing, and collective bargaining tells us that that’s important. They recognize the power that workers have.

CARMEN: Workers need the right to organize and the protections against retaliation that make that kind of movement building possible.

SARAH: I mean, first and foremost, ensuring that garment workers are able to organize themselves into trade unions, they’re able to unionize, they genuinely are able to exercise their right of freedom of association, and able to collectively bargain is super important. And I guess in the jargon that we tend to use in the human rights and business space, the freedom of association, collective bargaining really is an enabling right. Meaning that you give people a voice, you let them have a voice, you let them pool their power, and they’re able to negotiate and speak up and demand other rights like safe and healthy working conditions, like maternity leave, like wages, and all of these other things that people should be able to achieve at work. So, that’s super important. That’s something that governments should be making easier for their citizens to do in their countries. It should be, it’s often a right, that, as I said, it’s a right that’s enshrined in conventions from at the UN level. But it’s also often in the constitution of countries, and it’s just not enforced. So, that’s something that governments around the world really need to do a better job of enforcing.

And when governments aren’t doing a good job of enforcing that, then, maybe some of the countries you tend to buy a lot of garments from, the countries where clothes are made can do a much better job of supporting those countries or even incentivizing through your kind of carrots and sticks, you might say, [laughs] to better enforce freedom of association for its citizens and particularly the workers working in garment factories. So, that’s super important.

But also brands, companies, they can also be helping support their workers to be able to exercise their right of freedom of association and collective bargaining to. They can, certainly make sure that all their suppliers know that that’s something that’s really important to the brand. They can support workers with training them on what their rights are or training them on how to negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions. There’s a lot of ways they can be supporting that. So, I think that’s a really good start. And of course, pooling. And I think this goes for lots of issues, but brands, it’s probably unlikely that any one brand is gonna be able to solve all these big structural issues themselves. 

CARMEN: They also need a larger voice at the decision-making tables where their lives and their work lives are shaped.

ETHAN: If we had all the power in the world as UNITE HERE, I mean every worker would have the right and the ability and the freedom to form and join a union. That’s the first thing. And I think really, kinda the next thing, which you kind of pointed to a little bit in asking a question, I think workers need to have a voice on the corporate board level because the decisions by a lot of these companies to outsource, they’re not necessarily being made in the factory, right? They’re being made by a corporate owner who is controlling the work. And for them, moving the factory elsewhere is just a logistical question. It’s kinda flipping a switch from their office, and it’s gonna happen, right? And I don’t think worker voices are involved in any of that decision making. And so, this model is used in some other countries, specifically in Europe, where workers have a seat on the boards of corporations. I think that will go a long way. That could go a long way in terms of ensuring that worker voices are heard and that their interests are represented in a lot of these key decisions that are being made.

But, I just think that if, I think that if there’s more global union solidarity, if we’re able to connect with each other and to be more organized in the way that we are approaching some of the same companies by the way, right? There are a lot of companies now that are owned by parent companies that then own 50 more companies themselves. So, how do we map out power? How do we map out corporate power and kind of figure out where the top dogs are? And those are the corporations. Those are the people that we need to be holding accountable.

Involving workers in decision-making on the corporate level, in the board rooms, that really isn’t being done, at least in the United States and certainly not by U.S. companies that are operating in developing countries where they own factories. So, a lot of people will point to different kinda like fair trade models or ethical sourcing models, co-op models. A lotta people often point at Patagonia as a company that seems to have the right, you know, a good head on their shoulders. I mean, they might. They might have a good head on their shoulders, environmentally speaking. But if you go on the website of a lot of these kinds of companies—Nike, Adidas, the major manufacturers—they’ll have a lot of kinda mumbo jumbo about corporate responsibility and social responsibility, and they’ll have a lot of documents up about where their factories are and how happy their workers are. But there’s real no independent agency requiring them to do those kinds of things. And in a lot of those cases, they’re just manufactured by the corporation to make themselves look good.

CARMEN: This is a big-picture problem. Ending the inequities throughout fashion’s supply chain will only happen when we start calling out the culture of greed and dominance that perpetuates each and every one of them.

War on Want builds alliances and drives action to fight for workers’ rights, raise public awareness of economic injustice, and advance long-term solutions to inequality in partnership with grassroots groups around the world. And their work is centered on the idea that poverty is caused by the choices of wealthy corporations and individuals, and that capitalism and other structural forces are the urgent root causes of inequality and oppression. That orientation that makes them uniquely powerful forces in the global movement for a better fashion economy.

RUTH: I think what we need to recognize is a number of different ways in which change is gonna come around. I mean, firstly, not to underestimate the agency and the power of workers themselves in changing this. I mentioned one of the key issues is that whilst there might be already constitutional and legal rights for workers to join, form unions and associations, that is routinely flouted. And those rights are resisted. Workers have been unable to do that. So, building worker power itself is key to change. You know, there are already international, rights, you know, fundamental human rights. There are already national constitutions. There are already laws. But it’s about making those real. And I think from our point of view, that the building up of worker power to claim those and to insist on those being honored and fulfilled is a key part of change.

Then, yes, there is also around looking at enforceable agreements. We’ve seen that there has been a number of kind of voluntary codes or what you might kind of, you know, CSR, corporate social responsibility initiatives, but those simply aren’t delivering for workers. And so, strongly from a policy point of view, we’re looking at that there should be enforceable agreements, binding regulations. And that might be a national level but also, looking because the nature of this sector is global as well. So, you have things around a UN binding treaty. There are also examples for things like the Bangladesh Accord where you have binding agreements as well. But for us, yes, a key aspect is around there must be enforceable binding agreements all on the brands, on corporates, and that keeps them to account. Frequently, I think a number of the voluntary codes have maybe addressed some symptoms of the problem, but it’s not addressing the root issues.

I mean, we have historic patterns around the exploitation, from colonialism through to imperialism around how primarily the countries in the Global North have extracted resources and wealth off the back of workers in countries in the Global South. So, the fashion sector is another exemplifier of that historic pattern or trend. So, yes, you’re right. Why are we in this situation? We can trace the roots quite far back. And that is why redressing globally that inequality is a challenge, but must be done if we are to ever have a world that addresses the issues of poverty, of human rights abuses, but that challenges some of those historical patterns and expectations, I guess, around what we can consume and what that costs. Not to our pockets, but also what that costs in terms of our global community.

CARMEN: Yeah. And so, it’s almost like we can’t really build a new fashion economy unless we sort of dismantle a lot of these oppressive systems that have been in place for time immemorial.

RUTH: Mmhmm. Absolutely.

CARMEN: Because, the answer here, to all of these issues is the same answer that we uncovered in our episode on sustainable fashion: It’s the fast fashion economy, beautiful! And envisioning a radically different kind of fashion economy is a major part of righting all of these wrongs.

ETHAN: Yeah, I mean, [sighs] I feel like this just constant race to create the next cool thing, we have to find a way to slow that down, right, and convince people that if it’s not that thing, there’s gonna be, you know, the next thing’s gonna happen. And we can’t afford, the planet can’t afford, human beings can’t afford to continue at this pace with so much waste, so much violation of human rights and labor rights that to continue at that pace, it’s just unsustainable. And we really need to think of ways that we can still make purchases and support workers and be happy with what we’re buying but in a way that supports people and that’s sustainable.

RUTH: I mean there’s an element within which I guess we don’t want to see that an industry that’s making trillions in profits is able to somehow gain kudos because it’s honoring our basic human rights. You know, fundamentally, work should honor those. So, it is transformative if it’s moving away from generating the biggest profit margins possible to ensuring that work delivers in terms of a living wage and decent and dignified work. I think that completely changes what the industry is structured around.

SARAH: When we went away and talked to garment workers themselves or talked to trade union members who represented garment workers or other NGOs who work with garment workers, the thing they told us too was they don’t want people to, just full stop, stop buying clothes. You know, they’re like, please don’t boycott us. We need these jobs. We just need better jobs. And so, for us, that was a really powerful story. It’s like, no, it’s not about turning away from fashion. It’s not about shaming different companies or shaming the industry necessarily or about shaming ourselves for loving the joy and frivolity of it. But it’s really about trying to make it into a force for good and really trying to move it in a direction that’s actually really gonna uplift people and empower them, whether they’re working in the supply chain, or whether they’re wearing clothing.

CARMEN: The good and glamorous news? That kind of new fashion economy can start with you, with me, with all of us, however we’re ready to get involved.

ETHAN: I think if we’re gonna do that either as a labor movement or as a social justice movement or what have you, I think we have to be realistic too about where consumers are at. You know, our union in the ’60s and’ 70s came up with a campaign against imports, right? And it was just a total failure because you can’t convince people who themselves are making lower and lower wages from going to shop at Walmart. I can’t convince some of my own union members to do that. It’s just, for them, it’s what’s economically feasible, and you can’t fault them for that, right? So, it really has to be an argument that’s based off of who are the real people that we need to be holding accountable? Where’s the real power that we need to be targeting to ensure that we can try to take steps towards changing people’s mentality and kinda changing, shifting a culture? So, it’s those questions that are really big-picture questions that excite me and excite us and I think we need to be talking more about.

CARMEN: Most of the outsourcing of the domestic fashion market shows up on the labels that we see on women’s clothing. And women are obviously dominant consumers in fashion overall. That means that women drive the fashion sector, even as our sisters are uniquely marginalized by it. In other words, if we put our money where our protest signs are, things actually might start changing. And there are so many ways for us to do it! We can shop smarter, or less, or with different brands and labels in mind.

SARAH: Working in the behind the scenes of the sector has really changed how I view my own wardrobe and how I view my own kind of consumption habits. I mean, 12 years ago, I was living in Minneapolis, working as a makeup artist, doing some fashion styling. I had crazy wardrobe. It was huge. I had a shopping addiction. I kept clothes in the kitchen, where the dishes were meant to be. I had hundreds of pairs of shoes. It was really a problem. And yeah, so, I came from a very extreme consumption addiction I would say, and to now, really having a deep understanding of how the industry works and what’s behind it. And now I just, it’s really opened my eyes to thinking about every purchase I make and what the kind of ramifications are of that purchase, what that means. So, I guess for me, it means A, I buy a lot less. I really think about whether I genuinely need something. You know, do I really need another pair of black ankle boots? Probably not. I almost always try to find something secondhand first if I can and give something rather than it going to landfill, giving it a second life. If I can’t find that thing secondhand, or sometimes I just don’t have time to go on the hunt and I need something for a particular reason, then I will try and seek out something that’s been made by a brand who’s trying to work in a sustainable way.

Often that means they’re a bit of a smaller and maybe more independent brand, and then, yeah, and at least support them with my dollars or maybe even borrow something from a friend. There’s also, I’m quite excited about the new rental models that are out there now. So, now you can rent a handbag or rent a dress for a wedding or you know, to rent clothes is quite cool. And then, as a more like last resort, if I still can’t find what I need from secondhand or a sustainable designer, then I’ll probably buy something in just like a regular shop you find in a shopping mall or online or whatever. But I always make sure that, you know, I’m always thinking, am I gonna wear this? Or if it breaks, am I gonna repair this? And am I gonna wear it at least like 100 times? And if I’m like, no, I’m not gonna wear this over and over again, then I don’t buy it.

ETHAN: I’ve definitely changed the way that, you know, since working in this job, the way that I view my purchases. I think one of the things that contributed more so than anything else to the decline of the clothing industry in the U.S., at least in terms of manufacturing, is the advent of fast fashion. It really was kind of the driving force for, specifically for the women’s clothing industry, for the outsourcing of so many jobs. And so, when I’m making my own purchases, I’m trying to think like, am I gonna use this for the next few years? Not like, am I gonna use this for this spring? Am I gonna wear this pair of shoes this spring and then throw them out and get a new one next spring, right? I’m thinking, let me make a purchase of a pair of shoes that I like, that I might spend a little more money on right now, but I intend to wear these for the next few seasons, right? And I’m gonna get my use out of them. And I think that’d be hugely beneficial to the industry as a whole if people started to change the way that they thought about their purchases and the goods that they’re purchasing. So, it’s definitely something that I think about a lot.

And just with the shoe example, I mean, my grandfather was a union shoemaker, and there aren’t many union-made shoes anymore. There are some USA-made shoes. And so, it’s just kind of like the question of how do you find those things, where do you find them? And you might have to make some compromises along the way, right? You might not be able to find union-made shoes, but what’s the next best thing? Well, not that sweatshops don’t exist in the US anymore, but if you’re buying a U.S.-made pair of shoes, it’s more likely to be produced by fair labor than it is, a pair of shoes from Vietnam or India. So, you just make those decisions, and it’s been, for me, it’s been definitely an eyeopener. I mean, we always say, look for the union label, right? I mean, that’s the best way to know, as a consumer, that what you’re purchasing was made ethically and that the person on the other end of that purchase was treated fairly and had a voice in their working conditions. So, we always say, the best way to ensure that is to look in your product to see if there’s a union label in it.

Because the industry specifically, the clothing industry, has shrunk down so much, it’s less and less of kind of a household thing now to even look in your clothing to see if there’s a union label, let alone whether it’s made in the USA or not. If the label isn’t there, there’s plenty of different lists on the internet that you can find to show you which goods are union-made and which ones to avoid and where to shop and where to put your money.

CARMEN: Or we can give some of your hard-earned cash back to the movement leaders that are best equipped to turn those dollars into tangible progress.

SARAH: Donating to organizations like the Worker Rights Consortium or Clean Clothes Campaign or even Fashion Revolution, that’s also really powerful because a lot of these organizations are very small and really trying to solve real-world issues for garment workers every day. Or organizations like Fashion Revolution who are trying to change the world of fashion, so to speak, and could really use your support in that way too.

RUTH: As consumers, we’re also making choices around maybe some of the clothes that we buy, and we’ve talked around that. But we also are making choices perhaps also in how we use money to support nonprofits or other types of organizations. I think those are just as significant because in that way, also consumers are acting collectively to support initiatives that can be allies of workers. And I think that is important in terms of, you know, when I recently went to Sri Lanka, it came out very clearly that workers there were very motivated by the fact that people knew about their situation. So, last year, a longstanding trade union partner of ours was in an industrial dispute, and we called in our supporters to email that company. 3,000 of them did. And when I went out there a month ago, a number of the workers commented on that because it was like, we’re not isolated. We’re not alone. We didn’t know that people knew that this was how we were being treated.

CARMEN: Of course, money isn’t the only currency in this movement. So is engagement, raising our voices, and using our activist energy. Making noise matters at the store and in the streets.

RUTH: I mean, I think one thing to sort of put there is yeah, consumers can be and should be important allies of workers in transforming this system. It is both sides. It shouldn’t be around individuals just making different choices about what they buy. It needs to be also that it’s a fundamental shift. That said, yes, consumers are important, can be important allies of workers in that by asking more questions, insisting on transparency in supply chains, as citizens, asking that that is legislated for. It enables much more scrutiny. It enables more challenge so that claims around ethical working practices can actually be can be verified. And there’s a number of different initiatives around sort of human rights due diligence approaches as well. So, that can shift. And so, consumers are important parts, as I would say, as allies of workers in bringing that around.

I mean, I make individual choices about where I shop and what I buy, but fundamentally, it’s about the brands being accountable for that. My role as a consumer is to ask questions, as a citizen, to also potentially use my money to support those organizations that are calling for, able to research and analyze that more, and to be able to hold governments and brands to account.

SARAH: I have a couple of friends who absolutely love Zara, which I get it. They’ve got nice stuff. Often they have these garments that look very luxury, obviously not, with a very low price. I get it. But what’s super powerful is to then, even if you love that brand, contact them either through social media or email them or call them up or go into the shop and ask them questions and ask them like, who made this? What factory was it made in? How do you make sure that the conditions are safe? How do you make sure the workers are getting paid enough that they can support themselves and their families on that wage? Ask them about the chemicals that are in it, or ask them how the cotton was grown. Ask them these questions, and let them know that you want them to do better. That you want them to ensure that the people who are making their clothes are safe, that they’re paid fairly, and that the environment isn’t being destroyed in the process.

We’ve met with some of the world’s biggest brands and kind of asked them so, what would make you change your ways and make these improvements faster than what you’re doing now? And some of them have said that even if they get 30 calls or emails about a particular thing, like a particular issue or topic or question, they’ll often take that straight to the Board of Directors and discuss what they’re gonna do about that issue. Now they may choose to do nothing, but they may also choose to do something really meaningful and maybe even something quite radical. Your voice matters.

The other thing I would encourage people to do is to also show up when and where you can for garment workers or for people making your clothes. I mean, for example, in the U.S., like in L.A. for example, there’s a lot of small and not that small garment factories operating in downtown L.A. or around L.A. And a lot of the conditions are pretty poor, and a lot of the people are making really, really crappy wages. And the Garment Workers Center in L.A. is doing a lot to kind of organize workers around standing up for their rights and fighting for better pay. And they’re often having demonstrations. So, I think if people can take some time out of their busy day and show up in solidarity at their demonstrations, that’s really powerful.

CARMEN: I’ve been excited about exploring fashion through a feminist lens because I love fashion, too, and I wanna see it live up to a more radical potential. I wanna believe in expression without exploitation. I wanna feel myself without feeling culpable in a human rights crisis. And I know I’m not alone.

SARAH: We’re people who deeply love fashion. And so, that’s where we really want it to come from is like, we know how to speak the fashion language. We really love fashion, and we wanna see it be a force for good. And so, that’s really the place that we came from when we set up Fashion Revolution, and the place that we come from in all the campaigning that we do now. And I think fashion, clothing can mean so much to people. It’s what makes you feel good about yourself that day. You know, it tells people about how you identify yourself in the world or what you want people to kind of know about you or think about you or, you know, it has all these intrinsic and extrinsic values that go alongside of it. And I think for us, we didn’t want people and all of our campaigning ultimately, we didn’t want people to feel shameful about that. And obviously, there’s all these terrible things going on when it comes to human rights abuses, when it comes to environmental degradation going on in the fashion supply chain. But ultimately, it’s really hard to get people to do something about it when they just feel shamed about it and shameful and shut down. So, we really set out to kind of turn it on its head and be pro-fashion protesters, saying, no, we love this industry, and we wanna see it be a force for good.

CARMEN: If you wanna serve looks and serve up justice, then let’s go get dressed for the revolution.

[theme music]

Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was edited by Emily Boghossian and produced and hosted by me—feminist media-maker and movement-builder Carmen Rios—as part of our GLAMOUR season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Today’s guests were Ethan Snow from UNITE HERE, Ruth Ogier from War On Want and Sarah Ditty from Fashion Revolution. You can learn more about them and get connected to their work by clicking around in the show notes for this episode on bitchmedia.org.

But the conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show. Follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get more feminist stuff like it in your feed (algorithm willing). And find me @carmenriosss (with three s’s) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr. You can also send me hate mail at carmenfuckingrios dot com.

Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent, Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is funded entirely by our community. So, if you loved what you just heard, you can support the show directly by joining The Rage, Bitch’s monthly membership program for fed-up feminists like you, at BitchMedia.org/rage. Members get print and digital subscriptions to Bitch magazine, a members-only Filled With Rage mug, and other sweet feminist swag! And if you wanna make sure you never miss an episode of the show, you know the drill: subscribe to Popaganda on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher for even more glamorous conversations about ethical and feminist fashion. And while you’re at it, leave us some nice reviews.

Stay tuned for our next episode, coming out in two weeks, in which we’ll take a tour of the L.A.-based beauty company empowering women to wear their politics on their lips. Till then, I’ll see you on the internet.


by Carmen Rios
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Carmen Rios is the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. She’s also the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine and co-host of Trigger Happy, a weekly webseries about women’s issues on Binge Network. She has been described as “petulant and idiotic,” “intimidating to some,” “vapid and uninteresting” and “brazenly misandrist.”