Until fairly recently, the F word has been avoided by a lot of people, but lately we’ve managed to reclaim the word FEMINISM and there has been a surge of support for the movement. Gone are the days where people distanced themselves from being identified as feminist, picturing angry women burning their bras. (In fact – did you know that in the feminist movement of the 60s no one actually burned their bras? It’s a total myth!) Today, plenty of women happily define themselves as a feminst, and tees with slogans like ‘#FEMINIST’ and ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ have sprung up all over the high street – but they represent a huge feminist issue that’s hidden in plain sight.
The majority of garment workers are women
80% of garment workers are women. This means that the garment industry and the terrible working conditions within it largely affect women, making this a huge feminist issue. We’re all aware of the horrible working conditions that garment workers face, whether we want to admit it or not. Long working hours, forced overtime, extremely low wages, and dangerous working conditions are just some of the issues these workers face.
But this industry also faces the same issues that women in the western world are fighting against. Female garment workers have nowhere to turn if they face sexual harassment in the workplace, as they can so easily be replaced and left without a job. There are also few options for childcare and maternity leave isn’t a thing – if you can’t work, you’re out of a job. This means that many women are left with no income if they become pregnant, and many have to be separated from their children, sending them back to live with their own parents so they can continue to work in the factories.
So why is it the case that 80% of these garment workers are women? In many countries where these sweatshops operate, boys are much more often given an education than girls, which means that when it comes to finding a job, men have lots of options available to them, while for women, being a garment worker is often one of their only choices.
An issue for intersectional feminism
Awareness of intersectional feminism is growing, as women in rich, western countries realise that being a feminist isn’t just about looking at issues within your own society, it’s also about standing up for women around the world. Support is growing for issues women face around the world, like inequalities in education, FGM, and ‘honour’ killings – many of which are issues here in the UK as well.
So why has this issue of the treatment of garment workers been allowed to carry on so quietly? Here is a huge feminist issue that’s right under our noses, wrapped round our legs, and stretched across our chests. It might feel like you’re making a statement and supporting a movement by buying a #FEMINISM tshirt from the high street, but by doing so, you’re supporting the terrible and unequal treatment of the women and girls who made that tshirt.
Fashion is the answer
Fashion is the problem here, but luckily it can also be the solution – because when we start to change the way we produce our clothes, it’s women who benefit. Of course, since women are the majority of the workers, any improvement to working conditions will benefit women, but there are knock-on effects too. There are plenty of great fashion brands out there working to improve the lives of female garment workers, which you can support by donating or buying from them.
Mayamiko is a trust with a fashion project, working with a female collective in Malawi to create their clothes. These clothes are not made en masse as quickly as possible, but rather are make with skill, using techniques passed down from mother to daughter generation after generation. Mayamiko is a real community-based project, which means there is a community of support for the women they employ. They also provide their workers with training towards a formal qualification. Mayamiko really focuses on the skill and value these women can bring to clothing, and works to help enrich their lives as whole, rather than simply to get the most amount of clothes for the least amount of money.
rYico (Rwandan Youth Information & Community Organisation) & African Sewing Club
rYico is an organisation that works on multiple projects to help communities in Rwanda, and one of these is the African Sewing Club. The African Sewing Club has started up their own ethical sewing factory, producing clothes with good working conditions in a way that builds a community and supports women. The factory is located close to the communities in which the women live, as most garment factories are in a factory district which often means an hour or two of walking to work each way. The factory works to support women who need medical help or have been victims of domestic abuse, and aims to help them to rebuild their lives by offering them employment in good working conditions, and providing support, medical help, and training. One of their aims is to help support women by helping them to gain independence through employment. The women are not reliant on charities, and are not taking out a loan to start a business, but rather they work in a factory where they help to generate the profits that are put back into their own community. The women have reasonable working hours, a living wage, a good meal provided for them, help with childcare, and a lot of other support, too.
People Tree aims and has always aimed to be 100% fair trade throughout their entire supply chain. They partner with local fair trade organisations and collectives in order to help local communities and make sure the people making their clothes are benefitted by their employment. For example, they partner with a group in Kenya which provides employment and support for people with physical disabilities, and their sweaters are hand woven by a team of skilled female weavers. People Tree is a great example of a traditional fashion company that works hard to also be transparent with their supply chain and works hard to ensure good working conditions for everyone involved.
These are just a few examples of some fashion brands which would be great for feminists to support! If you have any other examples let us know in the comments or tweet us @Revival_Collect – we’d love to know your favourites!