The Gendered Dimension of Sweatshop Labour

Who Has the Feminist Movement Left Behind?

political, economic, equality of sexes, fair trade, sweatshops, slavery,

Merriam-Webster defines feminism as both “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” The popular Swedish retailer H&M used to sell a crop top emblazoned with a slightly punchier definition: “Feminism: the radical notion that women are people.” (According to H&M’s website this shirt is now sold out.) It is important for feminists to be aware of the environment in which H&M’s clothes are made.  As Tierney Finster over at Jezebel reports, Cambodian labourers who work in factories where H&M (among other clothing brands) manufacture their clothing have in the past staged protests demanding fair compensation and the ability to unionize without reprisal.

political, economic, equality of sexes, fair trade, sweatshops, slavery, slave labour

Commodity Feminism

The brand Whistles has also been criticized after it was alleged shirts carried by the clothing retailer which read “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” were made in a sweatshop based in Mauritian.  In a discussion of the Whistles controversy academic Laura Harvey characterized the shirt as an example of commodity feminism, another term it would be useful for us to define. Commodity feminism is the means by which “the goals and language of feminism” are used by companies in an attempt to sell products and it is becoming increasingly insidious. Companies that co-opt feminism in this way are able to create the illusion that they support gender equality while maintaining business practices that disadvantage millions of women worldwide.

political, economic, equality of sexes, fair trade, sweatshops, slavery, slave labour

Make no mistake, the garment industry is decidedly un-feminist.  An overwhelming number of garment workers (roughly 80%) are women. Despite the fact that so many women are employed in the garment industry, men are “three times more likely” than women to occupy management roles within clothing factories. Women also receive roughly 85% of what their male coworkers make and are less commonly appointed as union leaders. For these reasons it is crucial to view the prevalence of sweatshop labour as being a women’s rights issue, something too few women in the west are willing to do.

Related Article: Feminism in the Western World 

Case Study: Women Garment Workers in Cambodia

In Cambodia 90% of the country’s garment workers are female. A Human Rights Watch report claims that women employed in the industry frequently work double or even triple shifts. Some people have explicitly linked these exorbitantly long shifts to the West’s hunger for faster turnarounds. Garment workers who are already vulnerable to exploitative business practices are forced to work longer hours to satiate the demand “fast fashion” retailers.

Workers can also face blow back if they try to unionize. In fact, Cambodia’s garment industry is “notoriously” resistant to unionization. Through strategic use of short-term contracts employers are effectively able to prevent their workers from forming unions by simply opting not to renew the contracts of employees who attempt to organize.



Intersectional Feminism

As Jarune Uwujaren and Jamie Utt note in an article they co-authored titled ‘Why Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional,’ “Privilege conceals itself from those who have it.”  They argue that intersectional feminism is an important tool in bringing that privilege into view. Kimberlé Crenshaw, the civil rights activist and scholar who originated the term intersectionality, describes it as “a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.”  At its core, intersectionality is a way of ensuring that a diversity of voices are heard and respected.

Too often the voices of white western women are given primacy in discussions of feminism. It is important to acknowledge, for instance, that Canadian aboriginal women face both racial and gender discrimination, that they occupy a space at the intersection of two disadvantaged groups. For this reason, the prejudice they face may be distinct from the sexism directed at white women.

Uwujaren and Utt point out a common criticism of intersectionality is that it threatens the “unity” of feminism, dividing women and preventing us from achieving our shared goals. The reality is that an inability or unwillingness to recognize how the lived experiences of women all over the world vary is likelier to bring about disunity. We need to fight against the kind of myopia that leads to western women discounting the experiences of Mauritian or Cambodian women and move towards a more inclusive feminism. Only by allowing for differing points of view can feminism truly claim to be in service of all women rather than a select few.

Still, retraining the eye of the feminist movement on the struggles of women in developing countries is not enough. To really make a difference in the circumstances of the women who manufacture our clothes there need to be widespread policy changes. As Crenshaw writes, “Intersectionality alone cannot bring invisible bodies into view.  Mere words won’t change the way that some people — the less-visible members of political constituencies — must continue to wait for leaders, decision-makers and others to see their struggles.”


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About the Author

Ariel Wyse is a freelance writer who lives and works in Southern Ontario. She is passionate about feminism, sustainability and labour rights. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from The University of Toronto.

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