The Story Behind Your Clothes • When you try on that special garment that you just have to ‘have', do you think about the story that garment could tell if given a voice? • For example, if given a voice, your garment could tell you about the human issues, social culture, working conditions, and concealed social inequalities under which the fibres were harvested or manufactured, fabric constructed, and garment produced. • It could tell you about the existence of fair trade practices, the reality of a living wage, the truth regarding the implementation of safe and healthy working conditions and violations, as well as issues surrounding social justice and injustices, and the quality of life for people employed by the industry all over the world. • Your special garment is more than the newest fashion or latest trend; it is a reflection of the human experience and the human condition.
Lowell Mill Girls were textile workers who actively participated in early labour reform through legislative petitions, forming labour organizations, and protesting through “turn-outs” or strikes. • In 1845 the Lowell female textile workers started the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. One of its first actions was demanding a ten hour work day. In 1853 the Lowell corporations reduced the work day to nine hours.
Fashion is Related to the Human Experience & the Human Condition • You can relate to clothing at some level simply because you purchase, wear, and care for clothing. • It may be important for you to wear the latest fashion or it may not. It doesn't matter; what is relevant is that you wear clothing and at some level make decisions regarding the clothing you wear. • Historically, the harvesting of fibres, and manufacturing of cloth and clothing has always reflected the human experience and the human condition. • For example, the British weaving guilds were instrumental in organizing the textile workers so as to implement a fair wage and safe and healthy working conditions. • In North America, it was not unusual for garment workers to work ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, as well as take extra work home to complete during the evenings and on Sundays because wages were so low (Weber, 2003, pg.143).
What led to the organization of labour unions? • Low wages and extremely poor working conditions led to the organization of unions. • In 1900 the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) was founded in an effort to improved working conditions for garment workers, many of whom were immigrants and the rural poor. • Looking at the working conditions and wages of the employees at The Triangle Shirtwaist Company will help you understand what improving working conditions and wages meant to workers in 1910.
Case Study: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company • List the conditions and concerns the workers would have experienced working in this factory: • Consider their hours, wages and the enviroment.
Better Conditions: • In 1995 the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) merged to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). This union represents over 250,000 garment workers and puts a union label in every clothing item made by its members. UNITE also sponsors advertising campaigns which focus on the purchasing of garments made in America. • In Canada, the government regulates legislation concerning labour practices and employment standards. If employees are unionized, the union typically acts as a watchdog ensuring that wages, benefits, and safe working conditions are maintained. The Employment Standard Act, Workers' Compensation Act, Occupational Health and Safety Legislation, and Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) are some examples of government legislation that employers must adopt to ensure the health and safety of their employees. • Many apparel manufacturing companies produced goods in New York City and Toronto up until the late 1980s and early 1990s. • More recently manufacturing has shifted to off-shore production facilities. • For the manufacturer the advantage of producing apparel off-shore include reduced labour costs and less rigorous labour practices and safety standards than those required in Canada, the U.S, and Europe. • One of the realities of off-shore production is the existence of sweatshops. Although sweatshops still exists in North America, the sweatshop issue has taken a more global focus during the past twenty years.
Sweatshops: • Today the Canadian and American definition of sweatshop focuses on the adherence by the employer to government laws, regulations, and legislation. The definition is as follows: • Any employer that violates more than one federal or state labour law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labour, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation, or industry registration.
The Origin of Sweatshops: The Western World • Sweatshops began during the Industrial Revolution and became more prevalent during the Second Industrial Revolution (1870 -1914) with the introduction of mass production. • The proliferation of sweatshops marked the end of the artisan system and introduced unskilled labour into the production of clothing. • Unskilled labourers worked piecework and thus replaced the need for skilled artisans such as tailors and dressmakers. • Typically female immigrants and the rural poor worked in sweatshops. It was not unusual for children to work in sweatshops as the notion of mandatory public education for children was just beginning.
ILGWU • The International Ladies' Garment workers' Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900 to improve the working conditions of garment workers, most of whom were women and children. • Supported by the ILGWU, there was a massive strike by women's shirtwaist makers known as the Uprising of 20,000 in 1909. This strike, which lasted for fourteen weeks, began with spontaneous walkouts by twenty percent of the workforce at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. After several mass meeting, the workers voted for a general strike which resulted in approximately 20,000 out of a possible 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walking out. The strike was apparently violent. Police arrested picketers without just cause and the employers apparently hired men to beat the picketers while the police looked away. • A group of wealthy women, among them Frances Perkins and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, supported the struggles of the poor and working class women with financial assistance and intervention. These women, known as the Mink Brigade, joined the picket line. Progressive reformer, Frances Perkins working with the ILGWU and politicians, pushed for comprehensive safety and workers' compensation laws.
Continued • In February 1910, the ILGWU accepted an arbitrated settlement that improved workers' wages, conditions, and hours. Although a number of companies including the Triangle shirtwaist Factory refused to sign the agreement, the strike encouraged garment workers to take action and brought to public attention some realities of the rag trade and sweatshop conditions. • The ILGWU led another strike in 1910 known as The Great Revolt. In this strike, 60,000 cloakmakers walked out. After months of picketing, an agreement known as the Protocol of Peace was established. In this agreement, the ILGWU won union recognition, higher wages, and a rudimentary healthcare benefit program, for its membership. In return, the workers agreed that during the term of the Agreement, they would settle their grievances through arbitration rather than striking. It is interesting to note that this agreement is a common clause found in union contracts today.
Sweatshops in North America Today • Unions, labour laws, government legislation concerning minimum wage, fire safety codes, and public awareness have decreased the reality of sweatshops in industrialized countries. • However recent studies conducted by the United States Department of Labour found that sixty seven percent of Los Angeles garment factories and sixty three percent of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. As well the studies found that ninety eight percent of Los Angeles factories have workplace health and safety problems.
Unions and government legislation concerning minimum wage and overtime have assisted in increasing the cost of apparel production and manufacturing in North America and Europe. • This reality along with consumer demand for fashionable clothing at lower price points has resulted in manufacturers outsourcing apparel production. • Developing countries, for example, Bangladesh, China, Honduras, India, and Vietnam encourage outsourcing of work from developed countries such as the United States, Canada, and Europe as outsourcing provides employment and profit. • The existence of sweatshops in North America and proliferation of them in developing countries provides much fodder for discussion. There are some professionals who take a more positive view of their existence than others.
Below are some of the arguments given for and against the existence of sweatshops: Pro-sweatshops • Economic theory of comparative advantage which holds that developing countries benefit economically as factories result in jobs which in turn improve the standard of living in developing countries • Sweatshops are a significant improvement over other employment options which include subsistence farming, prostitution, picking through garbage, and starvation through unemployment etc. • Typically, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan are cited as recent examples of countries that benefit from sweatshops
Anti-sweatshops • Sweatshops ultimately defied human rights and took advantage of the individuals who were not economically fortunate. • They equated sweatshops to slavery, human trafficking, and harsh labour. • More recently, the anti-sweatshop movement has joined other social justice movements that focus on environmental and globalization issues. • They note the anti-sweatshop movement is borne out of concern for the welfare of people in the developing world, the global economy, and the environment. For example, multi-nationals race from one country to another polluting the environment which impacts the health of the citizens (e.g. birth defects and death through the use of pesticides). • The anti-sweatshop movement also notes the gender nature of sweatshop employees who are typically young women who leave school and move to urban centres. These women have little legal or familial support. The disproportionate impact of sweatshops on women creates a cycle of poverty and reinforces the feminization of poverty.
The Global Reality of Sweatshops • It is very difficult to find out which companies use sweatshops to produce clothing especially when you consider the multi-national corporation aspect of the textile industry, apparel production and manufacturing, and the fashion industry. • As well, many companies and manufacturers subcontract to hire labour and hence are not liable for the conditions and treatment of the employees. • The distant relationships between manufacturer and retailer, also makes it difficult for the consumer to gather accurate information.
Although reading clothing labels is beneficial, the notion that “Made in Canada” can be equated to fair and safe employment practices is misinformation. Sweatshops still exist in Canada. Similarly, although the “Made in China” notation has many implications for the Canadian economy, this notation does not mean the garment was made in a sweatshop. • If purchasing clothing produced in a sweatshop is an issue for you, here are several questions you may consider asking your favourite retailer: • Do you know what countries produce the clothing your company sells? This information should be noted on the garment label. Ask yourself – do you think the information provided is accurate? • Is the company aware of who actual produces the clothing, for example is production subcontracted out? • Do you have access to a list of all the factories and their locations that make your clothing? • Does your company guarantee that the clothing it sells is produced under humane conditions? • Does your company have a code of conduct that ensures and protects the rights of its workers including safe working conditions and fair wages? Indicate that you would like a copy. • Does your company have a code of conduct that forbids the use of child labour? Indicate that you would like a copy. • Does your company enlist an independent monitoring agency to ensure that the code is honoured by all manufacturers, factories, and subcontractors? What is the name of the independent monitoring agency? • What protocol is followed when your company discovers a violation to its code of conduct?
The Sweatshop Issue: Determining the Difference between Fact and Opinion Who? Who is the source of the information? For example, is the source a person or an organization? Are they a credible source and/or an authoritative source? What is their motivation for providing information? If an individual is the source you need to consider their credentials, as well as their background knowledge and experience relating to the topic/subject. What? What are they specifically writing about? For example, is their writing specific in content, complete, consistent, and supported by evidence or is their writing very general, unsubstantiated, and based on opinion rather than facts and evidence. Evidence also referred to as facts can take different forms. For example, you can use quantitative evidence or qualitative evidence to develop and support your argument. Quantitative evidence typically focuses on numbers and statistical analysis while qualitative evidence focuses on themes that arise from interviewing subjects, as well as personal anecdotes etc. Researchers will typically focuses on only one form of collecting and analyzing data. Is more than one viewpoint offered and is the work thorough and well organized?
When? For example, is the source using current information and references? Are the references credible, reliable, and substantiated by evidence? Why? Why are they writing about this subject? For example, are they writing to highlight an issue, to inform and educate, to instill fear and doubt, to persuade, to call to action etc.? Where? What type of organization is instrumental in the publishing of the information? For example, is the organization a drug company, an insurance company, a government agency, a business, a non-profit organization, or an educational organization? Question why this organization is motivated to publish this information and ask what they may or may not gain? When researching on the Internet ensure that you understand the component parts of the address. For example, .gc refers to the Federal Government of Canada; .ca refers to education and some Federal Government offices in Canada; .gov refers to Canadian Provincial Governments and Federal Departments in the United States.
How? How can you tell what is what? For example, check the facts and sources of information and constantly ask questions.
Fashion, by its very nature, is about in-built obsolescence. It's about waste. We fashion people revel in waste. We look disapprovingly at anyone wearing last season's boots. We want everything to be new, new, new. We want it before it is even in the shops. We are already shopping for winter the spring before. We pride ourselves on being ahead of the game. We like nothing more than a nice, shiny (and yes, often plastic) carrier bag, full of new clothes. The problem is, lately the whole business has started to look kind of ugly . . . . TamsinBlanchard, Green is the New Black