In 2013, more than 1100 textile workers died in Bangladesh when an illegal factory collapsed. Although this Rana Plaza disaster shocked the world and highlighted the shortcomings in the clothing industry, not much changed for the better afterwards. With the Women Power Fashion project, Mama Cash and the Clean Clothes Campaign joined forces to support activists who want to bring about change. That has now yielded special results.
Barbara Lotti, from Mama Cash, has been involved in the two-year project: “Extreme overtime, breadline wages coupled with unsafe and humiliating working conditions are still a reality for the many women and girls working in garment factories. With Women Power Fashion, we have organised various activities over the past two years to strengthen the capabilities of women’s groups so that they can come to grips with this injustice. Thanks to a donation of 1.5 million euros from the National Postal Code Lottery, members of 14 trade unions and organisations in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were able to take the training so that they could enforce their rights more effectively. We provided them with the tools needed to improve their safety. And we brought the abuses in the clothing industry to the attention of consumers in the Netherlands.”
One of the way in which we were able to highlight these abuses was thanks to the special pop-up store that appeared in Kalverstraat in May 2016. At the front it seemed just like a trendy clothes shop. But people who thought they were going in to try on clothes walked into a real-life sweatshop: a raging hot studio where women sew garments against the backdrop of an infernal noise. Barbara: “In this way, we gave consumers a glimpse of low-priced clothing, and let them think about how much they’re willing to pay after seeing how their clothes are made. We also generated publicity, some of which appeared in fashion magazines and fashion blogs, so that was wonderful.” The project was so successful that it will be repeated in May this year on the Grote Marktstraat in The Hague.
On the other side of the ocean, textile workers were asked what they needed to increase their safety, at work or as activists. Maria Şerban-Temişan of the Clean Clothes Campaign: “Each group was given a budget to put together safety kits tailor-made to their needs. These kits ranged from masks to prevent the inhalation of harmful substances to newsletters containing information about the codes of conduct that the different clothing brands apply. These can be used by activists to boost their demands for better working conditions.” Other groups gave out water bottles so that workers could bring drinking water with them to work. Whistles were also a popular item if you felt you were being harassed – something that happens often: Supervisors like to use sexual harassment as a means of repression. One group even bought bikes so activists could participate in important meetings a little further afield.
In addition to safety kits, Women Power Fashion offered networking meetings, and the opportunity to organise and follow training. Maria: “For example, courses in employment law and language courses to communicate with international partners or committees. The training courses in negotiation skills were also very effective. For example, women role-played negotiating with factory managers about their right to drink water, even outside lunch breaks. These types of training hit two birds with one stone: by taking part in these types of role-play, women immediately learned what rights they actually had.”
For Mama Cash, Women Power Fashion meant a renewed collaboration with some groups who had previously received Mama Cash subsidies, including the women’s union Red Flag Women’s Movement from Sri Lanka and a group that organises 50,000 women in Dhaka (Bangladesh) but remains anonymous – it is dangerous to them if it is known that they receive support from abroad. Barbara: “The group organises meetings in the slums where the workers live. They can’t do that in or around the factory as it is too dangerous. In both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, a trade union is only accepted if at least 30% of workers in a factory join the trade union. Until that time, a trade union must wait in hiding until it reaches the critical mass, because if management gets earlier, it can lead to arrests or dismissals.”
A great success was recently achieved by the Home Based Women Workers Federation from Pakistan. Barbara: “The Federation organises women who assemble sports shoes and create textile applications. We really are talking about millions of women. This informal union recently pushed through a law that recognizes homeworkers as workers, making them less vulnerable to exploitation and affording them basic employment rights. This is fantastic news.”