Approximately 80% of garment workers are women. This is not by chance, but the result of gender discrimination which runs through the industry. Women are desirable in the garment industry because employers take advantage of cultural stereotypes – to which women are often obliged to adhere – that portrays women as passive and flexible.
When women fight back, they are ignored, repressed and in some cases violently attacked and killed. State violence against garment workers, in Cambodia in particular has yielded some horrific outcomes. On December 24th 2013 workers took strike action to demand an increase in the the minimum wage to USD 160 per month. As protests developed, the police and military responded with violence on January 2 and 3, killing at least 4 people and injuring almost 40. Gender-based violence is commonplace in factories with women reporting instances of sexual and violent abuses. Women are often afraid to speak out due to a culture which blames the victim for this violence
“Women can be made to dance like puppets, but men cannot be abused in the same way. The owners do not care if we ask for something, but demands raised by the men must be given some consideration. So they do not employ male workers.”
Female Bangladeshi garment worker
Homeworkers, which are mainly women, are employed predominantly to stitch together the leather pieces constituting the upper of a shoe. These women are essentially invisible but play a vital role in the production of certain types of leather shoes. They provide low cost labour which is irregular and insecure have no social security and no health and safety protection.
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, necessary social services, and the right to security”
United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25.1
Whilst the global fashion industry turns over £1.2 trillion annually, the garment workers who uphold the industry work for poverty pay, live in poor conditions and often do not earn enough to cover the basics including rent, food, medical bills and education for their children.
Women workers are organising themselves in response to the conditions of the industry. Trade unions are crucial for ensuring that workers achieve a living wage and decent working conditions. They offer the most effective and legitimate way to establish a fair deal for workers, by allowing them to stand together to defend their rights. This collaborative voice allows workers to express their views, which they may be too intimidated to do alone. Unfortunately violations of freedom of association exist and Labour Behind the Label work on behalf of workers to ensure their rights are respected and the brands and suppliers who abuse this human right are challenged.
The photographs in this series have been taken by Heather Stilwell, a photojournalist based in Bangladesh and have been taken in India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangladesh. The images are also available as part of a larger project in the form of a photo book. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to know more and to order yours.
Labour Behind the Label believes that campaigning is an effective way of bringing about lasting change for workers in the garment industry, and we have a strong track record in achieving our campaign goals. You can help us achieve more.