Walking into a fast fashion shop in Brisbane, I am instantly surrounded by women seduced by the latest looks offered to us by the corporate fashion gods.
Women on their lunch break from work, mothers and daughters having a day out at the shops, university students killing time between classes, and girlfriends searching for something new for their night out. Everyone is soaking up the latest fashion and eager for a bargain. They have come to the right place. With new stock out every week and prices starting from just $3, on trend fashion has never been so fast and affordable. For that price it doesn’t even matter if you wear the new buy, right? As the queue at the checkout builds and the excitement from all the women intensifies, I have a sickening feeling in my stomach.
On this day one year ago, I was on the dusty streets of the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia surrounded by a different group of women: the women who make these clothes. I heard stories of violence, hopelessness, and desperation from these women who are tirelessly working to provide First World consumers with their bargain fix.
You didn’t realise that Cambodia was such a hub for fashion production? Don’t worry you are not alone, except for when bullets are flying amid violent protests, we rarely hear about the clothing industry. However, the industry in Cambodia is in fact enormous, employing over 600 000 workers. One of the main features of the global fashion industry is the use of women as “human capital”.
This is reflected in Cambodia, where women make up 85-90% of the workforce (Nuon, Serraho & Xhafa, 2015). During my time in Cambodia I realised that these female garment workers are an invisible part of the fashion system. But EVERYTHING is made offshore these days, we are giving women in developing countries jobs, so what’s the problem? Although the industry provides a source of employment, in 2015 Human Rights Watch highlighted widespread industry exploitation. In order to ensure the least resistance to working conditions, factory managers are keen to hire women who are vulnerable, respect male authority, and have minimal education regarding their work rights, union membership, etc. These women are predominately young and uneducated, trained to produce only basic garments so their skill level stays very low.
What effect does this have on the industry?
Workers are under constant pressure to meet high production targets in order for factories to make a profit and with limited prospects of training, the opportunity for industry progression is slim. Therefore, the women become trapped in repetitive entry level roles, with no skills or confidence to build a life for themselves beyond the factory walls. Additionally, unsafe transport, poor working conditions, and poor health and nutrition have contributed to a volatile environment with violent strikes and protests erupting regularly.
So how did we become so disconnected, buying fashion while not realising it is embedded with the exploitation of women?
Sweatshops are meant to be a thing of the past, surely. There are codes of conduct in place and shiny Corporate Social Responsibility reports produced by brands that assure us everything is O.K. Except everything is not It is 2016 and there is still widespread exploitation in the industry – with young women caught in the crossfire, we can no longer pretend everything is O.K.
Why should you care?
Because you are better than this. You are smarter than a $3 t-shirt and a flashy Corporate Social Responsibility report. You stand up for other women. You have aspirations and dreams and you want the women in your life to have the same. So why not extend this opportunity to the women who have made your clothes? Although this might sound like a problem that is far too big to tackle alone, there are ways that we can work together to disrupt this exploitative system. How? We can work with garment workers to develop their skills and aid in their personal development. We can increase their confidence and capacity, so that they can start to see a life for themselves beyond the factory walls. We can collaborate with trade unions and universities to make this happen, working inside the industry to drive change. Working with the largest garment workers union in Cambodia, my project Empowering Women in the Cambodian Garment Industry is going to make this happen. But I need your help. Let’s do this together. Your support will give back to the invisible women who make your clothes and together we will begin to disrupt this exploitative system. Click here to learn more and become involved, because we can’t do this alone.
About the Author
Lauren is a Doctorate of Creative Industries Candidate and Sessional Academic (fashion, design + sustainability) at Queensland University of Technology. Lauren's expertise in the fashion industry has led her to lead and work on a variety of local and international projects that focus on capacity development of marginalised and disadvantaged individuals and communities. Her research has taken her to communities in Malawi and Cambodia, where she has investigated the complex relationship between fashion supply chains, questions of ethics and international development. Lauren’s aim is to develop projects that create positive intervention in the supply chain. She holds a BA in Fashion & Textiles Design (Hon) from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).