The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

I’m sure you’ve all heard the news; Target has come to town.  As one Zellers disappears at a time and some of us lament the loss of another Canadian company and the further Americanization of Canada, others are excited for more options in cheap fashion styles coming to a store near you. Recent news out of Jordan on the treatment of female garment producers however, is another kick in the ass reminder of the high cost of this cheap fashion.

Photo by Flickr user adgray2k, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Jordan has become a magnet for the garment production industry since 2001, when the U.S. ratified a free trade agreement with the country. Classic Fashion is currently the largest garment export factory in Jordan employing some 4,800 people, mostly guest workers from countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and China.

Last month, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights released a report alleging that workers producing clothing for Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s and Hanes at the Classic Fashion factory in Jordan are being regularly beaten, underpaid, and forced to work overtime without pay and in excess of what is allowed under Jordanian labour laws. At the centre of the abuse and exploitation at Classic Fashion factory is widespread sexual assaults and rape of female workers by male members of management.

The report presents the stories of numerous women who have taken great personal risk to tell their stories of abuse and exploitation. Female workers report that women who become pregnant and women who refuse the sexual advances of Classic‘s managers are forcibly deported. In October of last year, 2,400 Sri Lankan and Indian workers went on strike demanding the removal of the alleged rapist, general manager, Anil Santha.  Classic‘s owner, Sanal Kumar, sent Anil on a recruiting mission to South Asia, only to return him to his management position at the Classic factory one month later, where he has resumed his reign of fear and abuse.

Despite being notified of these abuses by The Institute as early as 2007, the Jordanian Ministry of Labor has taken no action. Neither has the American corporations using these suppliers taken responsibility for or action to end these abuses.

In the past month, leading human rights groups increased the pressure on American brands purchasing from the Classic factory, demanding immediate public action to end the abuses.  A recent Huffington Post article  quotes the author of The Institute’s report, Charles Kernaghan expressing his frustration and disappointment with the response (or lack there of) from the implicated American brands “When we first started with this I thought Walmart and Hanes, they are not into human rights,” he said. “But we thought they would draw the line in the sand at these rapes. Instead, they’ve been virtually silent.” It has been over a month and these companies have yet to declare any public action. Their silence, while production continues as these factories, is deafening.

This is not just a story for U.S. consumers especially as Target moves into the Canadian market, and where Walmart has been a mecca for Canadian budget shoppers for years. On March 24, 2010, the Government of Canada tabled legislation to implement a Free Trade agreement with Jordan. This bill was introduced in the last session of Parliament, though Parliament was dissolved before the bill could be passed when the federal election was called in March. There is every reason to believe, however, that this bill will be quickly re-introduced when parliament sits again this fall. This means we here in Canada will also be welcoming goods produced under conditions of exploitation and abuse.

The exploitation and abuse of workers is a central tenet of the current global capitalist production chain and workers who are even more vulnerable because of factors like their sex or immigration status often experience the worst of this abuse.

As a feminist I often think about and struggle with the question how do we resist (and support the resistance of) gender oppressions that are beyond our own daily experiences.  I recognize that not all readers will identify with my “we” and “us” here. In using these personal pronouns I am acknowledging my own social location and position of privilege as a white, middle-class woman living in Canada and consequently am speaking to others who enjoy positions of privilege in the global production chain and to signify that these are questions with which I personally struggle.  It is a position of extreme privilege that for so many of us understanding and resisting these systems of exploitation and oppression is even a choice; it certainly is not for the women working at the Classic Fashion factory in Jordan.

While the actions below are certainly not an exhaustive or even the most radical ways to support the brave women at the Classic factory it may be a place to start for some.  In addition to refusing to buy goods from the companies who use do business with Classic Fashion factory here are some options for action:

SOME STEPS YOU CAN TAKE NOW

 1 ) Sign onto the petition urging American companies purchasing from Classic Fashion to take immediate action to stop these abuses. 

2) Stay informed: Check out the for Global Labour & Human Rights Institute’s Classic campaign page for more reports, updates and news

3) Call or write the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, John Baird, and urge him to refuse to ratify a free trade agreement with Jordan until there is evidence that human rights and labour rights are being upheld and protected. Make sure you cc’ your MP and the Foreign Affairs critic for the NDP.

John Baird                                                                                                                                                                                                               Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade                                                                                                                                        613-990-7720                                                                                                                                                                                        bairdj@parl.gc.ca

Paul Dewar                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Foreign Affairs Critic, New Democrat Party                                                                                                                                                          613-946-8682                                                                                                                                                                                        dewarp@parl.gc.ca


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Thank you Mr President but I’ll pick my own clothes today…

This past weekend, Belgium became the second European nation – after France – to create a law banning the public wearing of face-covering niqabs and burqas by Muslim women.  This law comes with a hefty penalty of 7 days in jail for ‘offenders’ and 138 Euro fine.  While both countries argue that it is unacceptable for a person’s face to be masked in public, the bottom line remains that once again a political war is being waged on the bodies of women.

Regardless of what political sentiment backs these laws – anti-Islamic, secularization, social conformity – the practical outcome is an attempt to control women’s bodies.  These European lawmakers are just as guilty banning the burqa as the Taliban was enforcing it.  Either way, both sides are pulling for the power to decorate the female body and present it as a marker of what is valued by their respective cultures.  Ultimately, it comes down to men (and some women) in positions of power controlling what is or is not put on women’s bodies.

Photo by Flickr user sokabs, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

At the heart of the issue is control of the female body, and, as an extension, the control of women.  Seeing a woman completely covered in an obviously Islamic dress suggests to the outside viewer that she is controlled by the “other”, which means she is not being controlled by “us”, the cult of liberty and freedom.  In the Western world we are uncomfortable with the idea that she is under rule of this foreign power and we want her to be under our rule so that we can force her to be free, equal and exposed.

In France, where the burqa was outlawed earlier this year, the ban is seen to be in keeping with the core french values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.  Delacroix’s iconic painting of Liberty Leading the People is a clear example of the way in which woman’s bodies become markers of the values of a society.  Lady Liberty, the personification of the values of the French revolution, leads the troops in her dishevelled dress, exposed breast and bare feet, confidently wielding the French flag.  She is a symbol of the way in which female bodies are decorated to be embodiments of cultural values. Women’s bodies have become the canvas onto which the codes, beliefs, and mores of a culture are painted.  What she exposes, covers up, or embellishes demonstrates what her society sees as beautiful, appropriate, reverent or valuable. Her dress has become a uniform which clearly marks the team to which she belongs.  I question whether these laws are really about liberty and equality or more about reducing numbers of the opposite team.

 There are plenty of other moral and practical issues on the line with this law – the scapegoating of muslim women, limiting the mobility of niqab wearing women, freedom of religious expression – but for me the most problematic issue is the mindset behind the law which suggests a woman’s body is not controlled by her but by the state.  Her body is no longer her own but has become a symbol of the values and beliefs of whatever culture she represents.  What I find difficult to understand is why these European nations are so insistent on exposing the woman behind the veil as they clearly aren’t able to see her as anything but a representation of “otherness’.