As Staiy’s Jen McDonald previously expressed, “without transparency we cannot see or protect vulnerable people and the planet […] Transparency in the supply chain is vital, it is a fact that a lack of it costs lives.” The reference here falls onto the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh. BBC News reported on the incident and stated that the death toll exceeded 1,000 individuals, as well as quoted Army Captain Shahnewaz Zakaria, writing that “most are female garment workers”. Further, it was reported that the Rana Plaza housed multiple factories, and that a day before the fatal collapse, cracks had been identified in the building, however, after a brief evacuation, the workers were instructed to get back to their duties. This awful catastrophe is only one of the atrocious ways the garment industry fails its workers.
India is one of the largest producers and exporters in the garment industry “with an export turnover of $37.11 Bn”. Despite it being 2021, unacceptable and outright ghastly instances do not cease to occur. I am referring to the loss of 20-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel who was killed by her supervisor at Natchi Apparels. The body of the young garment worker at the H&M supplier factory in Tamil Nadu was found on the 5th of January 2021 near her home. The Guardian writes that “according to police reports, a man working as a supervisor at Natchi Apparels has reportedly confessed and been charged with her abduction and murder”. Kathiravel’s family claims their daughter suffered months of sexual harassment prior to her murder. The article also quoted Thivya Rakini; she is state president of the union that represents women working at Natchi Apparels, Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU): “Her family and coworkers have told us that Jeyasre was being harassed at work but nothing was done […] Many workers we have spoken to say they are facing the same problems but either don’t know how to report grievances against their supervisors or say they are afraid if they speak out they will face retaliation”. Furthermore, Jeyasre Kathiravel’s family was forced into accepting financial compensation and signing a document that releases Eastman Exports, the factory owner, of any responsibility.
H&M is launching an independent investigation into the killing of the young garment worker and firmly stands by the statements that they have zero tolerance for gender-based violence. Their actions do not support their words, however, as this is not an isolated case. Corporations such as H&M may support equality on the world stage, but when it comes to behind the scenes, their supply chain and their supplier factories, they fail to make sure their ‘own values’ are being carried out. People can argue that, well then why do these women not just quit their jobs? The answer is simple, more often than not, work in the garment industry is the only one available to them. The Human Rights Watch writes of a group of eleven women garment workers who wrote a letter to their local union complaining of sexual harassment. Speaking of the union leaders, the article states that the leaders said that the women did not file a formal complaint because they “feared retaliation both at the factory and back home. Being unmarried and from conservative families, the women were dependent on their families’ permission to work in the factories. If their families learned of the harassment they endured, they risked being told not to work outside the house”.
This is where the idea of empowerment comes up. Despite the low pay, despite the terrible conditions, and despite the harassment they experience, these women want a chance at a better life, a chance at a better education, a chance at a better future, and the sad reality is that working in the garment industry is often their only real opportunity. Jeyasre Kathiravel was the first of her family who stood a chance of getting a higher education and making it out of the garment industry, her mother shares. The achievement is not utterly impossible, as Reuters shares the story of Sadeka Begum, a garment factory worker from Bangladesh who became “one of the first graduates of a special university programme that aims to inspire female workers to become leaders and boost women’s rights across industries”. That is why we need transparency in the garment industry, to be able to identify and prevent horrible cases from taking place and to support these women. This is also where intersectional environmentalism comes into play. The effects of the fashion and garment industry on the environment are steadily gaining more attention and environmental activism is growing in numbers thanks to movements such as Fridays for Future. Intersectional environmentalism emphasises the protection of both: the planet and the people. Climate justice and social justice go hand in hand and we need to be able to acknowledge that we have to protect each other. Humanity is at its strongest when we are united.
We need to continue to be vocal and hold large corporations accountable. It is not an easy feat but it is the only way we can achieve transparency in the garment industry and fight for both climate and social justice. There is a chance for empowerment for women in the garment industry, however, currently they are largely being exploited and subjected to unacceptable and downright horrible circumstances. Alone, there is not much one can do, but united, we stand a chance at progress. The Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) released a report called Empowering Female Workers in the Apparel Industry, where they discuss what businesses can do to empower their women workers. The BSR writes; “Many of the barriers to women’s economic empowerment are systemic. The apparel sector can influence policy change and drive industry-wide progress by sharing knowledge and expertise, and supporting policies proven to advance women’s empowerment and gender equality”. It is known that the fashion industry carries a lot of power, but perhaps it is less known that it can directly influence gender equality and policymaking. The garment industry has the power to change millions of lives; the time for it to use its power for good is long overdue.