Since its conception in 2017, the hashtag #MeToo has captured sentiments and stories of sexual harassment across the globe. The movement it propelled, now commonly referred to as the Me-Too movement, empowered millions of women who were at the receiving end of gender-based abuse, violence and harassment. The world of fashion saw its fair share of allegations surface in light of these developments. Worldwide news media was quick to report on accusations against famous names such as photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, Victoria’s Secret ex-
CMO Ed Razek and Topshop tycoon Sir Philip Green.
The movement has been helpful to the cause of many models as well as fashion’s corporate, PR and media personnel. This subset of personnel, however, is notably unrepresentative. Such consumer-facing roles and positions of power – be it on the runway or in the boardroom – are reserved for those who have historically occupied them. Fashion industry power players talk of “inclusivity” as essential to the future of fashion.
But currently, it is still challenging to find the names and faces of women from vulnerable communities in editorial ads, Instagram feeds, fashion shows and LinkedIn employee rosters of most major and upcoming brands. Women from vulnerable communities instead are placed behind uninspiring factory doors where the glitter and glamour of fashion are sewn together to create its desirable appeal.
About three-quarters of the global population of garment factory workers are female and most workers belong to non-white, low-income communities in the Global South. In a number of such communities, women face cultural barriers that inhibit their personal freedoms, are often survivors of domestic abuse, lack educational training and financial independence. Many tolerate harassment out of fear of social exclusion, some see it as “part of the job” and carry on due to financial constraints, and others lack the resources or technical know-how to merely understand the meaning of a hashtag, let alone the relevance of #MeToo.
Such a state of affairs indicates that the main beneficiaries of the Me-Too movement in fashion tend to be those who have leverage in the form of social and cultural freedom, economic prosperity and technical resources to participate in it. A woman who possesses such rights and privileges most likely lives and works in a prosperous circuit that guarantees social tolerance for a movement like Me-Too. The voices that remain suppressed are found at the other end of the globe in poorer, socially restrictive countries like India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia among others, where women lack access to the most basic human rights, let alone effective legal safeguards against sexual harassment.
Women from vulnerable communities instead are placed behind uninspiring factory doors where the glitter and glamour of fashion are sewn together to create its desirable appeal.
According to Fashion United, sexual harassment at garment factories takes several forms – such as comments, ‘jokes’, winking, propositions, inappropriate touching and “dog”, “donkey”, “prostitute”, “whore” and “bitch” are reportedly common insults, often uttered when female workers make requests related to sanitation or rest during their menstrual cycles. The misogynistic nature of such abuse indicates that these verbal and physical assaults are motivated by gender-based discrimination. Such discriminatory practices consequently produce a massive gender pay gap, to the disadvantage of female workers. Workplace harassment, in fact, is known to be a factor that adversely impacts the financial compensation of female employees in the long run.
What we observe here are clear infringements of basic human rights and the unfair treatment of the labour sector. For appropriate resolution, responsible authorities need to first acknowledge and accept the very occurrence of such violations. Given current circumstances, what do we know so far about the stakeholders involved? Are penalties meant only for direct perpetrators of misconduct or can we extend them to bystanders who profiteer from an exploitative business model?
To answer such questions, it might be useful to turn to an example in recent history. In 2012 and 2013, a major fire and the collapse of a building at two garment factories in Bangladesh caused hundreds to die and thousands to be severely injured. This particularly unfortunate incident sensitized corporations, governments and the general public to the extremely dangerous work environments in which factory workers produce the majority of our garments.
Ever since, journalists and non-profit organizations have actively investigated the labour conditions of garment factory workers in developing countries and the front-runners of “fast fashion”* have justifiably borne the brunt of numerous charges. For instance, retail giants like Zara, Gap, H&M and Forever 21 among others have been publicly called out with regards to the ethics of their labour practices. More recently, a New York Times report revealed that even prominent luxury brands such as LVMH and Kering, who were largely looming safe from similar allegations, cannot be vindicated.
Eventually, however, liability does not rest on an individual actor. Each participant in the supply chain is a stakeholder – from brand executives and factory owners to supervisors, governments and consumers. Each party involved is complicit in sustaining a system that disenfranchises the human rights of scores of individuals.
For appropriate resolution, responsible authorities need to first acknowledge and accept the very occurrence of such violations.
While recognizing the complexity of this issue, I believe a solution could be reached through the addressal of two problems in particular. The first problem is that the survivors of sexual harassment – placed at the very bottom of the fashion supply chain – are unwilling to speak up or take action against wrongdoers, fearing the loss of employment, societal and familial retaliation and/or social exclusion. The second problem is those boardroom executives of fashion’s consumer-facing units – those at the very top of the fashion supply chain – take little or no legal responsibility and often fail to address the issue through their public platforms.
The many studies on this topic – all widely available on the internet – indicate that garment factory workers in developing countries not only share similar working conditions and the lack of legal safeguards but also comparable economic hardships and social restrictions. By delving deeper into their problems and proposing solutions, we might be able to reevaluate work ethics and gender rights from the actual grassroots of fashion’s complex business ecosystem.
Any solution will involve measures that equip the top and bottom of the supply chain with incentives that encourage them to prioritize the social, economic and moral ethics of the business of fashion. Some key questions that need to be answered are as follows: how can advances in law and policy empower female workers to prevent and contest sexual abuse in garment factories? How can regulatory action and a change in business ethics hold corporate actors in the fashion industry more accountable for the protection of these workers?
These questions are merely intended to begin a conversation that, I hope, goes on for the next couple of years. The enemy here is not an organization, a factory or even an individual, but a culture – a culture that tolerates, and often supports sexually abusive behaviour. The fashion industry, for too long, has been a silent victim and perpetrator of this culture. It is up to lawmakers, fashion brands, corporate leaders and survivors themselves now to examine and tackle such cultural problems, many of which originate at the actual origin of every fashion product, behind the closed doors of a garment factory somewhere in the developing world.
*Definition: inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the