Garment workers’ voices
We start this part of this module by looking closely at Fashion Revolution’s manifesto point #3. It pictures a time when the fashion industry actively listens to what its workers have to say and acts on their ideas and requests however welcome or unwelcome they may be.
#3 Fashion gives people a voice, making it possible to speak up without fear, join together in unity without repercussion and negotiate for better conditions at work and across communities.
QUESTION: How close do you think we are to this now? What do you think? Write down your thoughts.
In previous modules, we have asked you to watch and listen to a number of people talking about the fashion industry in videos and podcasts. What we want to question in the first part of this module is who is talking about whose lives and livelihoods, who are they talking to, and what are they saying. Many of us may have been asked to think about what our clothes might tell us about their lives if they could talk. Or to imagine what we might say to the people who had made our favourite garment if we ever had the chance. Or to listen to what garment workers have to say to us, as consumers, about their lives, work and dreams.
But how can fashion give fashion industry workers a voice? Who can give a voice to whom, and what can they say under the circumstances? How can these voices appeal to consumers? How can they influence negotiations for better conditions? How can they shape what happens in a workplace? When and to whom should fashion industry workers say exactly what they think? When might they need to modify this so that people will listen and take them seriously?
QUESTION: Take some time to think about your own ‘voice’. Under what circumstances, and by whom, are you ‘given’ a voice? Do you say exactly what you think to everyone in all circumstances? Or does it depend? When, when and with whom can you speak without fear? When, where and with whom do you need to be more careful?
Below, we guide you through a series of short tasks and questions. First, we look critically at who is giving voice to whom in a lot of sustainable and ethical fashion activism (spoiler: it’s typically garment workers in the Global South being given a voice to speak to consumers in the Global North). Second, we start to listen to some garment workers talking about their lives, their work, and how they would like thing to improve in the future (but, here, we ask who is asking them to speak, and who are they speaking to). Third, we ask you to think about whose voices we don’t hear much, which people working in fashion’s supply chains we don’t hear from, and why that might matter. Fourth, we look at an activist organisation (and band) which mobilises garment worker voices for no Western consumer to hear (and ask why that might be important). And we finish by asking you to reflect on your voice, and what you can do with it! Giving people ‘voice’ is not as simple as it might first seem.
i. The importance of listening to garment worker voices
One of the first films we often show to students to introduce them to Fashion Revolution was made just after the Rana Plaza collapse when Italian model and fashion activist Livia Firth asked British film director Mary Nighy to bring to life a quote that she liked by the Irish activist and businesswoman Ali Hewson: “You carry the stories of the people who make your clothes”. Mary Nighy explained, “If you tell people the statistics and you make it into a polemic, it doesn’t touch people in the same way. We wanted something very simple. It’s about touch. It’s about people like you who just live in a different place and have a different job. And the idea that they’re present with you in some way, whenever you get dressed in the morning, whatever you put on. It’s like you’ve got the faces of the people all around you who touched your clothes before you put them on”. The film she made – called Handprint – was published online in 2013. It painted a vivid picture of who needed to speak and who needed to listen if the world of fashion was going to change for the better.
TASK: Watch Handprint. It’s 2.45 minutes long. Then take some notes in answer to the following questions.
QUESTION: How would you describe the woman getting dressed? What does her gender, class, race/ethnicity, and where in the world she is living appear to be? How would you describe the people she sees in the mirror in terms of their apparent genders, etc.? In this film, who is given the opportunity to speak and who is given the opportunity to listen? Voices can be heard, but what are they saying? Can you understand what they are saying? Why not?
EXTRA STUDY: to find out more about the intentions behind, the making of, and the responses to, this film see it’s page on the followthethings.com website.
ii. Giving garment workers a voice
The most important take-away from Handprint is that it shows a stylish, white, wealthy woman being encouraged to listen to what some of the brown, workwear-clad presumably poor factory-working women and men who made her clothes, shoes and jewellery might want to say to her. The implication is that, once she hears those voices, she may shop for clothes more ethically or sustainably in the future. As a viewer, it encourages you to think and do this too.
If you search online, you can find many examples of garment workers talking to consumers about their lives and work. They are almost always women and what they say is translated into subtitles so that it can be understood by those who speak other languages. But what do these workers say and how can it be listened to critically, as well as empathetically?
TASK: Watch this 8 minute, two video playlist in which women working in garment factories in Bangladesh talk about their lives and work. The first video was posted on Youtube in 2014 by Primark, whose global headquarters is in Dublin, Ireland. The second was posted in 2022 by the Awaj Foundation which is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We have chosen these two videos to encourage you to think how workers’ voices are important and interesting but also mediated. The term mediated encourages us to question how garment workers’ voices may be filtered and presented to us differently by a fast fashion based in the Global North and a workers’ rights organisation based in the Global South.
QUESTION: According to the first – Primark – video, what has given Bangladeshi women a voice? And what do the workers who talk in the film say? What do they like about their work? What does it give them? Why do you think Primark might want these garment worker voices to be heard? Who does this video seem to be made for? In the second – Awaj Foundation – video, what problems do the women say they experience, what are they asking for, and how do they believe they can get it? Why do you think the Awaj Foundation might want these garment worker voices to be heard? Who does this video seem to be made for? Both films ‘give voice’ to garment workers, but what do you think may be influencing what they say? Do you think it would be possible for either organisation to present garment workers’ unfiltered voices to us?
EXTRA STUDY 1: find out more about the organisations that published these videos to help you think more carefully about why they might want what these worker voices say to be heard and by whom. Primark’s home page is here, and the Awaj Foundation’s is here.
iii. Hidden voices in fashion’s supply chains
Manifesto Point #3 which starts: “Fashion gives people a voice, making it possible to speak up without fear…” So far, we have questioned who is typically ‘given a voice’ in fashion activism (the working class garment workers of colour from the Global South who help someone get dressed and then appear in her reflection) and who needs to listen to, and act on, what those voices say (the wealthy white woman in the Global North who discovers recognises that these distant others help to fashion her look). We have watched and listened to what garment workers’ say about their lives and work and thought critically about how, by whom, and for what purposes their voices have been looked for to present to specific audiences (we can presume that the Primak video was made for consumers, for example, and the Awaj Founsation’s video was made for ILO policymakers). In this task, we want you to think about the voices that are missing from our understanding at the moment, and the other people that garment workers might be talking to in their efforts to change their lives for the better.
QUESTION 1: The voices that we have concentrated on so far are manly those of poor women of colour who work in garment factories in Bangladesh cutting, sewing and pressing clothes, and living in ‘shanty town’ accommodation. We know from the previous modules that there are plenty of other people working in the fashion industry all around the world, doing all kinds of different things, earning more and less money for doing so but, together, helping to make it what it is today and being able, therefore, to help change it for the better. So, of all these people, whose voices are we not hearing? List the first five you can think of.
QUESTION 2: We have also begun to think about who garment workers are asked to speak to and how and by whom their voices are mediated. Now we want you to look at the five people you have just listed. Who might they talk to about their lives and work in the fashion industry? Where in the world might they do this (in which countries, at work, home, where?) How, and by whom, might their voices be mediated? How and where would we get to hear from them? Don’t worry about your answers being right or wrong.
iv. Other worker voices and their audiences
The second part of Manifesto point #3 says that fashion gives people a voice so that they can “join together in unity without repercussion and negotiate for better conditions at work and across communities.” So, let’s now look at one fascinating example of that happening – not always without repercussions – in Cambodia. In Module 3a, we looked at the concept of ‘intersectional solidarity’ through the example of the “Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality” fashion show. Look closely at that film and there’s a scene in which a small group of young women seem to be singing.
These women are known as The Messenger Band, and they weren’t singing Katy Perry’s Roar! They are garment worker activists who research, write and perform songs to express the voices of Cambodia’s garment (and other) workers. But they don’t sing to consumers to ask them to help improve the lives of those workers. They are not interested in doing this. So let’s look at what they do with garment workers’ voices and why.
TASK 1: Watch this video of The Messenger Band’s song called ‘No Choice’. As you do this, read the lyrics of this song, plus some other Messenger Band song lyrics -originally in Khmer but translated into English – below.
QUESTIONS: What is this music like to listen to? How would you describe it? What do the lyrics in this ‘No Choice’, and the other songs below, describe and ask for? Who do you think would listen to these songs, understand what they mean, and do something in response?
“We went away from our mothers to be employed as household servants, construction or garment workers; we don’t have a choice because of our families, we lost the land and the money problems still remained; even if we work hard we can’t help at all” (from ‘No Choice’).
“We are all garment workers, we live in bad conditions, we struggle, with difficulty … The song that we sing is about the real life of garment workers, please pity us and consider the life of garment workers. How we are suffering? We are faced with suffering and problems because the factory owners exploit us. When the workers are in trouble, who can help to solve the problems? Where is justice? When I need you, why do you ignore me” (from ‘Voice of Garment Workers’).
“Why do my tears fall down? Do all of you know? I try to work hard with no rest, because of my family is poor. … When I get sick, I hurry to ask permission to get treatment, but my boss shakes their head and says NO! Oh my goodness, they are cruel and never think about us. This is the life of garment workers. We dare not take a day off because they will never allow it. We work though we are ill because if we dare to take leave, they will reduce our salaries. … Oh my tears please stop falling down because it solves nothing. As women, we have to be strong and overcome our hardship” (from ‘Worker Tears’).
“Being women we should not stand passively and behave ourselves. We should stand together and speak with one voice to promote women’s rights. Women must be valued like diamonds” (from ‘Solidarity to Protect Women’s Rights’).
TASK 2: To understand the ways in which The Messenger Band create and perform their songs about the lives of garment workers and how these might change for the better, watch this 5 minute profile of their work made in 2016 by Cambodia’s Chenla Media.
QUESTIONS: How and why was The Messenger Band put together? What do its members have in common? How and from whom do they gather the information that feeds into their song lyrics? Who gets to hear these songs, where, and who ends up signing them afterwards? By listening to, and performing, garment workers’ voices, what are The Messenger Band trying to do, and where in the world are they trying to do this? How do you think music helps them to do this?
EXTRA STUDY: if you want to find out more about the Messenger Band work and the impacts it seems to have had, read the band’s followthethings.com page.
So far in this course, we have been thinking about ways in which we – as consumers, as citizens, as workers, and/or in other ways – can do what we can to help create a more just and sustainable fashion industry. The word ‘we’ is important to question here. It’s not unusual to think about what ‘we’ can do, and Module 3 tried to extend this ‘we’ to include people who are similar and different from ourselves in multiple ways throughout fashion’s supply chains with whom ‘we’ might act in solidarity. What this module has done, however, is to suggest that ‘our’ knowledge and ‘our’ action is not the only source of change in the fashion industry so, perhaps, ‘we’ should not expect to be at the centre of everything. ‘We’ can appreciate, but also think critically about, how, by whom and for what purposes workers’ ‘voices’ are presented to ‘us’ to listen to, what appeals they make, and how ‘we’ might share, amplify, criticise or quietly ignore some of these voices. And you might not feel part of this ‘we’ anyway (think about the ‘we’ in The Messenger Band’s lyrics – do you feel part of that?). So we’d like you to think about your voice for this part’s reflective finish.
QUESTIONS: Do you think that fashion can give you a voice? When, where and with whom are you able “to speak up [about fashion] without fear”? How and with whom can what you have to say about fashion help you to “join together in unity without repercussions”? How could your voice help “negotiate for better conditions at work and across communities” within and beyond the fashion industry? Has this set of tasks and questions made you think ‘yeah, I do that anyway’ and/or ‘I’d love to do that, but I can’t’ and/or ‘I’d like to try that’ and/or ‘I wouldn’t even if I could’ and/or something else? How easy or difficult is it to use your voice sometimes?
Please express your thoughts and plans in any way you like: writing, sketching, photoshopping, whatever works for you!