While the fashion industry may appear to be a means of women empowerment with their feminist-slogan t-shirts and clever advertising campaigns, there are painfully stark gender inequalities in the industry.
From the exploitive conditions in garment factories that brands source from to the so-called “fabric ceiling” present at the highest offices in clothing companies, fashion is a feminist issue at every level of the supply chain.[Cover image via PayUpFashion.com]
Fashion and Feminism: in Numbers
Over 70% of the total fashion workforce is women, and yet women hold less than 25% of leadership positions in top fashion companies.
Approximately 80% of garment workers are women, a majority of which earn less than $3 a day.
Women make up about 43% of the total global retail supply chain workforce, but hold only 27% of management positions, and a 31% of supervisor roles.
The same report found that only 38% of promotions in the past year went to women while 62% went to men.
And at the highest level of the fashion supply chain or corporate ladder, the numbers are even bleaker.
Women make up just 12.5% of CEOs and 24% of board members at clothing companies in the Fortune 1000.
That’s even less than the financial services industry where 18% of companies have women CEOs.
The Pay Gap
This disparity is even more disturbing when you consider the pay gaps between fashion CEOs and garment workers.
An Oxfam report found that top fashion CEOs earn in 4 days what a garment worker earns in her entire lifetime.
Other reports have illuminated how the fashion industry has created some of the richest men on the entire planet, at the expense of the most vulnerable in the supply chain — (mostly women) garment workers.
Exploitive Working Conditions
Not only do the women making our clothes earn poverty wages, but they often face a swath of other forms of unsafe conditions at work from excessive overtime to insufficient safety conditions.
As Fashion Revolution puts it, “Although producing for some of the most profitable companies in the world, [garment makers] are working for poverty wages, under dreadful conditions, and they have to undertake an excessive amount of overtime.”
Just how bad are these conditions? Here are some facts to consider.
According to Remake, garment makers work an average of 14 hours per day in sweatshops.
Clean Clothes Campaign reports that garment makers typically work 10-12 hours a day and when order deadlines are approaching, they can work up to 16-18 hours per day.
The organization also reveals that it is common for garment workers to work all 7 days of the week with no time off during peak seasons.
As if being overworked and underpaid wasn’t enough, many women in garment factories also face gender discrimination through sexual harassment, abuse, and mandatory pregnancy tests.
Human Rights Watch has documented widespread abuse and sexual harassment in garment factories in India, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.
A CARE International survey found that nearly 1 in 3 women garment workers in Cambodia reported experiencing sexual harassment at work at least once in the previous 12-month period.
And the Global Fund for Women reported that 50% of garment workers in India have experienced verbal abuse and 34% of garment workers in Vietnam have experienced physical harassment at work.
For those who do experience sexual harassment, there is little they can do because of the lack of protective measures or support from factory management — let alone from the multinational fashion brands.
When garment workers join together and stand up for their rights through organizing, they’re met with threats, union-busting, and unjust dismissals.
And yes, many of those feminist t-shirts are made in these exploitive conditions.
Why Does this Imbalance Exist?
These conditions are no accident. As Labour Behind the Label says, the woman-dominated garment workforce “is not by chance, but the result of discriminatory practices from start to finish. Women are desirable in the garment industry because employers take advantage of cultural stereotypes.”
And as Business & Human Rights Resource Centre senior researcher Bobbie Sta Maria, points out, “It is overwhelmingly women who do the badly paid, low-skilled manual labour, and almost universally men who are in positions of power over them.
The brands benefit from this model and its lower production costs because they know that women will accept poorly paid work to support their families.”
What We Can Do
The problem is clear. How can we take action and transform the fashion industry into one that actually empowers women, instead of exploiting them?
Learn about the injustices in the fashion industry. Here is a list of free sustainable fashion educational resources to get started with.
Reduce or eliminate fast fashion purchases. It may not be accessible for everyone to give up fast fashion entirely due to considerations like size or income. If you are able to give up fast fashion and/or reduce the amount of fast fashion your purchase, then this is a crucial action you can take!
These brands will frankly never care about the women who make their clothes as long as they are able to profit off of their exploitation. If you’re looking for some guidance, this post has tips on how to quit fast fashion.
Become a consumer activist and ask brands who made my clothes? Direct message brands on social media, tag them in posts with the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes, email their representatives, and sign petitions like the PayUp Fashion one from Remake.
Follow, support, and amplify the work of garment worker advocacy organizations. Some organizations include Garment Worker Center, Remake, Awaj Foundation, Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label, Fashion Revolution, and the Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka.
Choose from ethical fashion brands when you do purchase something new. You’ll find plenty of these brands in guides here on Conscious Life & Style!
As you can see, there are many ways to get involved in the push towards a fairer fashion industry. No action is too small and you will find your place in the movement.
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