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Fashion, Power and Women’s Rights

Cheap clothing has its price. It may be great for consumers, but seamstresses in developing countries face a difficult workday. A campaign by a German women’s rights organization now wants to change this.


Long hours, low or no pay: a living hell for these Vietnamese seamstresses.

Every season, models strut down the catwalks of Paris, London and Rome wearing the newest fashions. And women then strut to the nearest stores to buy these fashions, or at least cheap knock-offs of the haute couture.

But few consumers know that their bargain purchases are mainly manufactured in eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. According to the German women’s rights organization Terre des Femmes (TDF), up to 95 percent of the clothing sold on the German market is sewn by mostly women in these countries.

Even fewer are aware of the working conditions facing these women. TDF says human rights are violated on a daily basis in the supplier firms of big fashion companies. A minimum wage that does not suffice to survive, as well as firing if union activities are attempted are the rule, the organization says.

"Over and over companies tried to prevent workers from unionizing," says Junya Lek Yimprasert, herself a garment worker for Bed&Bath and the coordinator of the Thai Labor Campaign. She experienced this when she tried to get female staff paid for their overtime.

TDF wants to change this. They have started a new campaign called "Fashion, Power and Women’s Rights" in Germany. It wants to make consumers, but also companies from the garment sector, aware of the textile workers’ situation and sensitize them to these conditions when they buy their clothes.

Health problems

When seamstresses in Thailand, Bangladesh or Macedonia go to work in the morning, they don’t know when they’ll return home in the evenings. If their factory has just gotten a new order, then they might have to sit at their sewing machines until late in the night. Breaks are short, conversations during work forbidden – the main thing is that the order gets finished.

TDF says the female workers are also exposed to disrespectful treatment, sexual abuse and permanent health risks due to a lack of health and safety regulations.

"The nature of production now is changing, so women work harder and faster and they take less time to rest," said Yimprasert. "So the women get lots of health-related problems, like urinary tract infections, because they don't go to the toilet when they have to."

Fabrik Näherinnen in Ägypten

A seamstress in Egypt.

In addition, these women have very little time for their families. "After the crisis in Thailand, we are seeing a lot more single mothers in the garments industry because their husbands just left when they faced the economic crisis and left them with the burden of the children," she says.

Women in Macedonia’s garment industry experience similar problems, says activist Anifa Demirovska from the Humanitarian and Charitable Roma Society.

"Although the wages are anyway already very low, salaries and social security are sometimes not even paid. That means that older women cannot retire because these payments into the pension system are missing," Demirovska says.

"Your voice is a much louder voice than ours."

TDF’s Gisela Burckhardt points out that low wages are the leading argument for building factories overseas. Yet the wages of the seamstresses only account for one percent of the sale price of the finished blouse, pants or jacket.

The organization is now calling on German consumers to pay closer attention to the origin of the clothing they buy and the conditions under which it’s produced. "If a lot of women do this, it shows a company the significance, or the sensibility of their customers for this issue," says Burckhardt. "And this has the effect that company policy will look more closely at controlling minimum social standards."

The women’s rights advocates want German consumers to show their solidarity with the textile workers. This could have a greater impact on the situation than protests by the workers themselves. As Yimprasert points out: "Your voice is a much louder voice than ours."

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