Does Your Feminist T-Shirt Empower The Women Who Made It?

The people making our clothes may not be visible, but every garment they make has a silent #MeToo woven into its seams
Claudio Montesano Casillas

“My particular bug bear is feminist tees which were not made by women who were paid fairly for their labour. Check your tags and brands,” posted actress Aisling Bea during Fashion Revolution Week. Slogan T-shirts with female empowerment messages are everywhere now, but the reality is that the fashion industry doesn’t empower the majority of women who work in it.

International Workers’ Day or Labour Day on 1 May was established to commemorate those who fought for safer workplaces in the late 19th Century. Over 100 years on, the Garment Worker Diaries project found that women are still concerned for their safety. 40% of the 540 workers surveyed had seen a fire in their place of work, 60% reported gender-based discrimination, over 15% reported being threatened and 5% had been hit.

When I met with the President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in November, he told me that sexual harassment doesn’t exist in garment factories in Bangladesh, whereas statistics show around 60% of Bangladeshi garment workers have suffered from sexual harassment. Earlier this week, Fashion Revolution organised Fashion Question Time at the Houses of Parliament, hosted by Mary Creagh MP. The panellists debated whether, five years after the Rana Plaza disaster, the fashion industry was a better place for women to work. I put forward the question, “The #MeToo movement is inspiring, but can it ever deliver freedom from discrimination and abuse for the millions of women who work in fashion supply chains?”

Lord Bates responded, “There are two things that always work to lift people out of poverty: education for women and girls and female economic empowerment”.

Carry Somers

Rushanara Ali MP added, “We need to focus on the rights agenda as much as we do on economic empowerment to get results. We need to target our DFID aid efforts to this as much as social and economic development. We have a female Prime Minister and I’d like to see us use our leadership globally”.

Research published this week by Fashion Revolution shows that gender-based inequality remains a problem throughout the fashion industry, from the highest levels of management to the shop floor and the factory floor. About 75 million people work directly in the fashion and textiles industry and about 80% of them are women. Many are subject to exploitation and verbal and physical abuse. They are often working in unsafe conditions, with very little pay.

Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2018 which reviews and ranks 150 major global brands and retailers according to their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts, throws a spotlight on how brands and retailers are tackling gender-based discrimination and violence in supply chains. The report specifically looks at how they are supporting gender equality and promoting female empowerment, both in their own company and in the supply chain.

Whilst most brands publish policies on discrimination, harassment and abuse, the research show that only 37% of brands are publishing human rights goals. Without reporting on goals and, importantly, annual progress towards these goals, consumers have no way of knowing whether their clothing purchases are really helping to drive improvements for the women who are making their clothes.

Fashion Revolution

Only 40% of brands and retailers reported on capacity building projects in the supply chain that are focused on gender equality or female empowerment, while just 13% publish detailed supplier guidance on issues facing female workers in their Supplier Codes of Conduct. Only 37 out of the 150 brands surveyed report signing up to the the Women’s Empowerment Principles, an initiative by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality, or publishing the company’s overall strategy and quantitative goals to advance women’s empowerment.

Meanwhile, just 5% of brands are disclosing any data on the prevalence of gender-based labour violations in supplier facilities, such as sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence, or the treatment and firing of pregnant workers.

Five years after the Rana Plaza collapse, women in Bangladesh are certainly working in safer conditions as a result of factory inspections and remediation, but little to nothing has been done to make them safer from harassment, violence and abuse. Brands need to do more than sell empowering T-shirts. They need to make sure their policies are put into practice, and not just in the visible places during fashion shoots or within their company but also in their supply chains. The people making our clothes may not be visible, but every garment they make has a silent #MeToo woven into its seams.

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