By Raiyah Butt
Regardless of the pandemic, the fast fashion industry sustains vast inequalities in South Asian countries, as garment and factory workers are underpaid and unprotected. So what exactly is the “sweatshop economy”, and how are the protests against big brands / factory closures part of the wider picture?
“They’re using Covid-19 as an excuse to get rid of unions”, said union leader Padma, after weeks of ongoing protests against the Euro Clothing Company factory. Owned by Gokladas Exports, the factory laid off over a thousand garment workers in Karnataka, India, without full pay. Workers have been protesting since early June, but this isn’t an isolated incident. Other big brands such as Boohoo, and company owners such as Kylie Jenner, have come under fire for cancelling orders and leaving workers without pay in Bangladesh. Back in May, protesters were allegedly shot at by police in Karachi, Pakistan after fifteen thousand workers have been fired and left unpaid since March.
These ruptures to the garment industry are just one consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this is a clear example of the “sweatshop economy” in South Asia, integral to the exploitative practices of fast fashion. Regardless of the pandemic, the fast fashion industry sustains vast inequalities in South Asian countries, as garment and factory workers are underpaid and unprotected.
How fast fashion and the use of sweatshops fits into global capitalism
The understanding of how fast fashion and the use of sweatshops fits into global capitalism is complex, so I’m using Ashok Kumar’s explanation from his book, “Monopsony Capitalism: Power and Production in the Twilight of the Sweatshop Age”. As opposed to monopoly capitalism (the accumulation of capital into large corporations who have lots of buyers) monopsony capitalism refers to large corporations outsourcing and having lots of suppliers.
Corporations at the top have asymmetrical power, as they have multiple suppliers to choose from. Workers at the bottom of the hierarchy have little bargaining power.
So, for example, H&M outsources its production to various suppliers, Gokaldas Exports being one of them. If garment workers at the Euro Clothing Company factory demanded more pay from Gokaldas Exports, which would increase the price of supply, H&M can simply take its business elsewhere to another supplier.
This is what the “sweatshop economy” consists of, and the reason why it is so durable. I used to work for H&M as a sales assistant, and I remember the feeling of despair every morning or closing shift, hearing the announcement of how much money our store made on the last day. The figure sometimes exceeded eighty thousand pounds a day, whilst I earned eight pound an hour. If that seems like a low UK wage compared to how much the store makes, now think about the pay and conditions of garment workers in Asian countries.
In Bangladesh, where the garment industry makes up eighty percent of their export revenue, workers take home an average of twenty five pounds a month or three thousand taka. Eighty five percent of the garment workforce are women, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation such as long hours, hazardous working conditions, sexual harassment and discrimination.
In India, those who work from home are an unseen dimension of exploited workers, receiving wages of between $0.13 and $0.15 per hour. In Pakistan, where garments account for seventy percent of export revenue, eighty five percent of workers do not have a contract. Therefore, dismissals without pay are common, especially when workers try to demand better pay and working conditions. This has resulted in repeated tragedies, such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka which killed over a thousand people, or a fire in Ali Enterprises factory, Karachi, which killed over two hundred and fifty people.
Exploitation of garment workers is essential to the global commodity chains of fast fashion, upholding the dominance of large, Western corporations in the garment industry.
I’m picking on H&M, but the reality is a wide plethora of major brands operate this way. Exploitation of garment workers is essential to the global commodity chains of fast fashion, upholding the dominance of large, Western corporations in the garment industry.
Even more disconcerting is the history behind this, rooted in British colonial rule of India. Indian fabrics were taken from India to Britain for cheap manufacturing, and then sold back again into the Indian market.
With no tariffs on British goods, this effectively undermined the Indian textile industry and led to its collapse, allowing for dominance of British production. Exploitation of farmers forced to produce more cotton, heavy land taxes, and unequal trade created hierarchies, with labouring classes at the bottom and British companies at the top. This is simplified, there’s much more history to it, but it’s contextual for how social and economic inequality and unequal trade in the colonial era set the foundation for the exploitation of garment workers by large Western corporations in modern day capitalism.
Can anything be done about it?
So, if this has been persisting for over a hundred years, and workers are in even worse situations due to Covid-19, can anything be done about it? It’s easy to feel helpless, sitting here reading about how global capitalism thrives on exploitation of workers, not to mention the destruction of the environment (that’s a whole different article). Fast fashion isn’t going to be dismantled overnight. I’ll conclude with a general point of advice: reduce your engagement with fast fashion brands. Shopping sustainable often seems inaccessible and cost-worthy, but there’s options, you’ve just got to find them.
A first step is to check out the links below.
Lost Stock is supporting those left unpaid and jobless in Bangladesh, by offering three items of clothing for you to buy at a discounted price, with the money going to support a worker.
Support the #PayUp campaign
Good On You is an app to search up whether a brand is sustainable or not.