MailOnline screenshot

Feminist T-shirts: garment workers’ rights should not be a political football

SEE BELOW FOR UPDATE

Because we sew, we know exactly how much work goes into a garment.

If I’m on a roll, it can take me a couple of evenings to make a skirt. Imagine doing that over and over, day after day… for just 62p an hour.

As a feminist and a seamstress, I was pretty disappointed to see the front page of today’s Mail on Sunday, which claimed workers in a factory in Mauritius were working on ELLE’s feminist T-shirts under pretty terrible conditions for a pittance. These T-shirts cost £45. If the conditions are as bad as described, then there’s absolutely no excuse.

The Fawcett Society does some excellent work, so, while this particular campaign wasn’t for me, I am disappointed for them. Their statement makes it clear they were concerned the T-shirts weren’t being manufactured in the UK. As far as I can see, they may have been quite badly let down by Whistles. I should state here, the Fawcett Society has asked for evidence to back up the Mail’s claims. Their statement adds:

If any concrete and verifiable evidence of mistreatment of the garment producers emerges, we will require Whistles to withdraw the range with immediate effect and donate part of the profits to an ethical trading campaigning body.

Whistles has said they’re investigating the allegations “as a matter of urgency”.

Let’s be clear: while this is an important story, the only reason it’s on the Mail on Sunday’s front page is because it’s an excellent chance for them to have a pop at Labour (and maybe feminism too while they’re at it). Nick Clegg wore the T-shirt as well, but he hasn’t been mentioned on the front page. One of the things I despise about politics is how people’s lives and working conditions become political footballs pre-election season. And it’s only going to get worse.

The exact same thing happens with coverage of the Welsh NHS. Normally, the national press doesn’t care too much about what happens in Wales. But because it’s run by Welsh Labour right now, the right-wing press sees it as far too good to not have a politically-slanted pop. I wouldn’t mind, except I know full well when May 2015 comes and goes, Welsh issues will return to the back of their minds, relegated to the back pages.

I digress.

Long-term readers of this blog will know I’m not someone who buys new clothes on a regular basis. That said, since my pledge ended and I’ve had less time to sew, I have inevitably been buying the occasional basic if I can’t find something decent second hand on eBay. Thanks to a hefty overdraft, I stick to the places I can get a T-shirt for cheap, feeling like a complete sellout.

It’s become increasingly difficult to find ethical and affordable clothing. As wages are squeezed and the cost of living gets higher, cheap clothes are so much more accessible. But we know cheap clothes come at a human cost. It’s been more than a year since the Rana Plaza disaster – and I’m not sure anything has changed. My colleague did a quick video around the time of the anniversary, asking some people if it had changed their shopping habits. Not that many people said yes. You can watch the video here.

People sign up to the Seamless Pledge for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they want to sew more or perhaps they want to cull their wardrobe to the basics. But the majority of them say they’re concerned about the way the items in their wardrobes are made. They want to take ownership of the ethics in their wardrobe the only way they know how. True, there’s still an issue with sourcing ethical fabric – but at least you know the conditions in which your clothing was made.

We absolutely should be talking about the rights of the people who make our clothes, but not just because some Labour MPs wore these shirts. We need to be talking about ethical manufacturing all the time and we need to demand better for the sake of the people who put the clothes on our backs.

As for me, I think it’s high time I renewed my pledge.

Also I have to emphasise again: the Fawcett Society does some amazing work, so do go check them out and perhaps donate if you’d like to.

On a completely separate note – YEP, I’m blogging again. More on that soon…

UPDATE Weds, November 5: The Fawcett Society has said the T-shirts were in fact made ethically. Full report here.

Found this quote pretty interesting:

Laura Harvey, lecturer in the sociology of media at the University of Surrey, criticised the newspaper’s report. “It was a cynical political move against an important feminist campaigning organisation. If the Daily Mail really cares about workers’ rights why aren’t they running stories about the garment industry more widely and the campaigns to improve worker’s rights?” she told the Guardian.

My point above still stands – ethical manufacturing is still a huge issue and I agree with Laura Harvey: we should be reporting on it as much as possible. If you’re interested, the Guardian did an interactive earlier this year about the human cost of the Bangladeshi garment industry.

4 thoughts on “Feminist T-shirts: garment workers’ rights should not be a political football

  1. Jen says:

    Do you think that if the t shirt hadn’t been used for political point scoring and brought to the front page that this would be a non-story and we’d continue in ignorance of these women’s plight? Well known brands have historically used sweatshops (knowingly or unknowingly) and rarely had it made the front page as this had because the t shirts have been politicised in a way that “feminism” hasn’t been before in popular culture and it suits the Mail’s anti women/feminist agenda to drag it through the mud and point out that “white” feminism is achieved at the expense at other cultures/ethnicities
    (Possibly badly worded but you get the gist?)

    • Elena Cresci says:

      Oh yeah, for sure. My issue is that say had it just been David Cameron who wore this t-shirt rather than Miliband et al, perhaps it wouldn’t have been the splash.

      I did have a bit in an initial draft about how this is indicative of a wider problem with mainstream feminism but it got a bit rambly, ha!

      This is part of the reason I’ve never really been wholly convinced on T-shirt campaigns. Even if I did buy new clothes regularly, you’re right, no one checks where these T-shirts are made.

      That said, I’m not sure the Mail really did look at that part of it – they mainly spoke about how shit Labour looked for wearing them.

  2. maddie says:

    Great post. I don’t know much about the issue, I should and I’m going to look into it. As a seamstress, I think about the working conditions that goes into a garment and don’t agreed/support anything that is unethical. Th anks!

  3. gingermakes says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly- the conditions of garment workers are absolutely deplorable, but it’s gross to see them used in a cynical political game. Instead of this being a comprehensive investigation into labor conditions, it’s just a chance to jab at political opponents. But I would bet almost anything that all the reporters who worked on this and all the right-leaning folk laughing at it are all wearing clothes made in unethical situations, too, since it’s nearly impossible to escape from. Ugh.

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