Last week the Daily Mail exposed conditions faced by workers in Mauritius producing the ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt. While I agree that we should raise awareness of workers being paid peanuts for making celebrity shirts, why do tabloids feel the need to try to take down feminism with it?
The solutions to sweatshop labour are intrinsically linked to feminsim. 75% of people who make our clothes in factories across Asia and Africa are women, mostly 18-35 – Women who are the lynch pins of their families, the bread winners, the strong resilient fighters. Often single income earners supporting their own, they travel long hours into the cities in order to earn in the garment factories. Feminism in the UK fights for equal pay, equal respect and representation. These concerns are equally valid across global supply chains where women at the bottom are screwed over by global economics, male supervisors and factory owners who fail to listen to their concerns. All struggle is linked.
So when the Daily Mail decides to do a token piece about sweatshops because the prime minister refused to wear a t-shirt, it isn’t because they want to raise the important issues these workers are facing, it is because they want to take a cheap shot at feminism – to pit one vitally important cause against another. I don’t stand with this.
The thing is that the CMT factory producing the t-shirts for Whistles is far from unique in its exploitation of women. In an industry that exploits workers across the world, the workers are being paid 6,000 rupees a month, which is more than the minimum wage in the country. The factory is legally complaint with Whistle’s code of conduct, which says wages should be at least the national minimum wage.
The issue is that complying with legal standard is a different thing from complying with human rights in factories across the global fashion industry. Worker groups in Asia and in Africa are struggling against minimum wages that are half or even a quarter of the amount needed for them and their families to live with dignity.
IndustriALL, the global union federation, say unions in Mauritius are calling for 9,000 rupees as the very minimum they need as a monthly minimum wage. IndustriALL estimate a living wage is closer to 14,500 rupees – more than twice the amount workers at the CMT factory are paid.
Due to global buying and the race to the bottom on price and conditions, country governments keep wages and rights suppressed in order to attract export buyers. So when ‘ethical audits’ measure whether factories are complaint, all that is outputted are tick boxes that measure wages and conditions set by an industry that is stumbling over itself to undermine workers and their needs. Unsurprisingly this leads to companies reassuring themselves that they are doing the right thing, when this is far from the case for workers.
Whistles need to re-evaluate whether their auditing model is sufficient to deal with a global industry that systematically undermines rights and wages.