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:


 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                                                                                                                                                                              

Paul Dewar                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Foreign Affairs Critic, New Democrat Party                                                                                                                                                          613-946-8682