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Activist Burckhardt on textile industry changes: 'Much of it is greenwashing'

Women's rights activist Gisela Burckhardt has been working tirelessly to improve conditions for textile workers in South Asia, and has been awarded the Anne Klein Prize by the German Boell Foundation for her efforts.

In countries like Bangladesh, India and Cambodia, where many international fashion companies have their clothes produced, the conditions for the mostly female textile workers continue to be harsh. They experience low wages, unsafe working conditions, long hours and workplace discrimination - leaving a dirty stain on the clothes that are sold in Europe and the United States for a big profit.

Development consultant and author Gisela Burckhardt founded the NGO Femnet, and has been targeting all those involved in the textile industry - from politicians to international textile companies to suppliers in Bangladesh and India to consumers and fashion students in Germany.

DW: You've been in the development field for more than 30 years and you've worked in many places from Nicaragua to Ethiopia. How did you find your main issue in female textile workers in South Asia?

Gisela Burckhardt: I have worked for over 20 years in development cooperation and [when] I came back from Ethiopia, I realized we have to change ourselves. We have to do something here in Germany in order to improve living conditions in all these poor countries. Development cooperation is just a small part but can't really change the situation. What will change is trade and business.

So [in order] to give the poor countries the possibility to develop, it is more important to work in the industry. And that's why I joined the clean clothes campaign in Germany. I found it important to target the companies so that they change their buying policies - and that will have a much bigger impact on workers and living conditions in the developing world.

You founded Femnet some 15 years ago. What change have you seen in the industry during that time? Do you feel that you've helped improve conditions somehow?

Well, I think we've had some success, but not as much as I'd hoped. After Rana Plaza, the collapse of this big building with five factories in Bangladesh in 2013 - there was [an out]cry in the world one could say. And we took this opportunity to demand change. And one of the changes was this agreement on the safety and building of the factories.

Collapsed Rana Plaza building (photo: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj/Files)

The Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013 and killed more than 1,100 factory workers

For instance adding fire exits and fire extinguishers to buildings, things like that?

Yes, exactly. But that has not changed the working conditions. We still haven't seen workers getting a living wage. In Bangladesh, workers get a minimum salary of 50 euros [a month]. And you can't live off 50 euros, not even in Bangladesh, that's impossible. We also have discrimination against women - especially in Bangladesh and India - it's very strong. And still not much has been done there. There are small projects going on, but at a general level there has not [been] much improvement yet.

Have companies changed since the Rana Plaza accident?

I think companies' awareness has changed a lot. Nowadays, you don't find any big company without a CSR policy - Corporate Social Responsibility policy. Most of the big companies nowadays know that they have to do something in that field, but much [of it] is still just talk. It's greenwashing. Some companies I would say also mean it; they really want to change something. But the bigger majority says: "We have to do something, at least for public relations," but are not very serious in implementing something.

When one looks at the conditions many of these textile workers toil under - they often work 12 to 14 hours a day, and not only do they have to make sure that their families are fed, some of them also are active in unions. And that must be such a tremendous effort; it takes so much strength. Do you think this kind of conviction to do something, to create change, that's something you really need if you want to change things for workers in general and women in particular?

Absolutely, I think they need to have this strength to fight for it. I really admire this strength of these women who on top of it all - their work - and on top of also being a mother and a wife, they still take time for union work. I admire them [for taking] that time for fighting for better working conditions. If you don't believe in it, if you don't spend all your time on it, you will not change anything.

That sounds a bit like it could also be a motto for you, because you've also been a very untiring person.

Gisela Burckhardt (photo: FEMNET)

Burckhardt has been awarded the Anne Klein Prize for her efforts in helping female textile workers

It's probably true - this is also my motivation; it's what gives me strength. I have this feeling I'm doing something meaningful. I'm doing something which could really change something. And I strongly believe in it and I hope that we can finally help these women to have a better life. So if you believe in that, then you have a lot of strength and you can devote all your time to it.

That is also my privilege - that I have the possibility to do something meaningful. My husband, for example, is the one who's cooking and I'm working, so we share this.

Particularly focusing on women, we are talking about women's rights this week because of international women's day. And a lot of people in Germany say there's no problem with women's rights. Do you feel there is among the younger generations enough consciousness about gender equality issues or is it something that kind of looks old-fashioned to a lot of young people?

Well, we know we still have a gap of 23 percent among the salaries of women and men in Germany, so for sure there is still a lot to do here. It is not the same situation as in India or Bangladesh, but I think we have to do a lot.

I have a daughter and as soon as she, the young generation, realizes that, for example, they get a lower salary than their colleague, and as soon as they realize that once they have children that this is much more difficult for women than for men, then I think the women [also become] aware that there is no equality yet in Germany.

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