Part two of the Key takeaways from 'The True Cost' (see part one here) has been divided in to the relevant information surrounding the workers, from Bangladesh to the USA - the fashion industry affects lifestyles globally, some for the better but personally, I believe for the worse.
During the documentary we meet Shima who is 23 years old and one of the 40 million workers in textile factories in the world.
Nearly 4 million of those workers are in the same position as Shima, working in almost five thousand factories, making clothes for major Western brands.
Over 85% of these workers are women. And with a minimum wage of less than $ 3 a day, they are among the lowest paid in the world of textile workers.
When Shima was 12 and first started working in a garment factory, her salary was $ 10 a month.
Now, she has formed a union at her workplace and is the president of it. She made a list of demands and principals received it - then came an altercation with the directors.
After the altercation, managers closed the door, locking her and some other 30-40 union members in and attacked them using chairs, sticks and scissors.
It is estimated that one in six people alive in the world today are working on some part of the world's fashion industry, so it is very labour dependent.
Most of this work is done by people like Shima, voiceless in the wider supply chain.
"I think these clothes are produced with our blood. Many textile workers die in separate accidents. About a year ago, there was a cave in Rana Plaza. Many workers died there. It is very painful for us. I do not want anyone seen anything, to occur with our blood. We want better working conditions, so that all are aware. I do not want another owner as Rana Square run that risk and force workers to work in such conditions. Lest they die more workers as well. For there is no more mothers who lost their children as well. I do not want this, I want that the owners are a little more aware and take care of us."
"Fashion retailers do not go to places like Bangladesh for no other reason except they can get cheaper labor can work. There are no collective rights in Bangladesh, no trade union rights, There is a very, very low minimum wage, no maternity benefits, no pensions, It is why the fashion industry is in Bangladesh because you can get the most benefits from these people they are making clothes for them."
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
‘The True Cost’ points out that in Cambodia, the garment workers are exhausted. They recently took the streets to demand a minimum wage increase in the country but the protests were met with violent repression, as police opened fire with live ammunition. For two days, Cambodia was a battleground.
In the city of Phnom Penh they brought in the police paratroopers as if there was a war! The government violently suppressed the people and as a result 23 were arrested, 5 people died and more than 40 were wounded.
This was all because workers in the textile industry wanted a minimum wage of at least $ 160 a month - they just want a proper, respectable wage to live a decent life with dignity and some level of security for themselves and their dependents.
The Cambodian government, like other developing countries, desperately need the business fashion retailers can offer and the constant threat of these brands relocating production to other low-cost countries keeps down wages, systematically avoiding compliance with local labour laws.
However this means they do not directly shoulder any of the responsibility or the effects of pressured employment, disaster factories, and continued violent treatment of workers.
The whole system begins to seem as a perfectly designed nightmare for workers trapped inside.
What is becoming clear, especially in Cambodia is that workers will no longer be deceived and deprived of their human rights and exploited by their own government - Workers continue to oppose these restrictive practices.
It translates into human capital. It translates in social responsibility of these large companies, It translates into economic justice. When everything is concentrated on making profits for large companies, we see that human rights, the environment, labor rights are completely lost.
It can be seen that workers are being increasingly exploited, this results in reducing the price of production and maximises their profit - simply satisfying their urge to accumulate capital.
This is deeply problematic, because it leads to massive impoverishment of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
If you write to any of the big companies still producing goods in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, they reply with their ‘Code of Conduct’ - which usually sounds so lovely and poetic, something like:
"Yes, we take responsibility conditions under which our product is made, the product you buy. In all the factories where we produce, we require them to abide by minimum wage laws, all laws of the country, respect women and not hire children, no forced labour, no excessive overtime,"
(for ‘Code of Conduct’ see misnomer)
When governments try to introduce a "Law of decent working conditions and fair competition", the companies have previously responded with "No! It would be an impediment to free trade. There can be no rules. We cannot pamper you! “- They want to keep with voluntary codes of conduct.
These companies fight to have laws protecting their profits and their interests, with no regard to the workers?
There are only voluntary codes of conduct. We must recognize, particularly in the fashion sector that human capital is part of this miracle profit sharing formula.
Without human capital, there would not be these huge profits that these companies appear to believe is the ‘norm.’
Cotton Farmers and their daily problems -
Most cotton is now 'Roundup Ready', meaning that farmers instead of spraying weeds occasionally in their field, or hire labourers to go to the field by removing weeds, they are now spraying entire fields at a time.
The cotton fibre is used to make most of our clothing here in the West and our growing appetite for fashion means that the cotton plant itself has been redesigned to keep pace.
So the whole system is now organized to remodel the plant to accept more chemicals - showing a big push towards the industrialization and intensification of agriculture.
Bt cotton is cotton which has an added gene of a particular bacteria which is used to produce a toxin. But Bt cotton, which is supposed to control pests, has been used because it is a way of making companies ‘legally’ own the seed. By patenting these genetically modified plants Monsanto became the largest chemical and seed group in history.
The companies that make the GM (genetically modified) seeds and chemicals - are the same companies that make drugs for various medical conditions which they are now busy patenting.
If you have certain medical conditions like cancer, there are benefits for these companies, for them it’s a win, win, win ... For nature and people, it's lose, lose, lose...
Agents of these companies approach the farmer and tell him: "You owe me so much money and you have not paid me, now your land is my land."
This has resulted in farmers committing suicide.
In the last 16 years, there have been more than 250 000 Farmer suicides in India. That's about a farmer every 30 minutes. It is the largest wave of suicides that is registered in history.
There is no knowing what the long term effects of this new chemical demanding cotton are. Previously the industry would follow the seasons and calendar years but now all year round there is a push to produce more and more.
Not only are our cotton clothes made up of chemicals, but we are unaware of the impact it has on our soil, with residues left to micro bacterial level? What kind of impact does it has on people in surrounding communities? What is the cost of life?
Farmers end up in debt buying the new type of cotton seed because of the high cost, 17 000 percent more.
They get in to further debt - because it fails to live up to the ‘promise’ to control the pests, so they have to buy more pesticides. The tragedy with chemicals, whether fertilizers or pesticides, is that they are what is called ecological narcotics: the more you use, the more you need to use them.
Most Indian cotton is grown in the Punjab, it has quickly become the largest user of pesticides in India.
Dr. Pritpal Singh has studied the effects of chemicals on human health and his reports show a large increase in the number of birth defects, cancers and mental illnesses here in the region:
Companies who sell the fertilizers and pesticides, totally reject the after effects and the classic symptoms of toxicity. In one village, there are 60 children with mental disabilities - it is becoming a very dangerous phenomenon in the Punjab. Poor people, peasants, workers, and small farmers they have already reached their breaking point so they cannot afford treatment. In short, they have accepted the death of their children and are waiting for it, knowing the cause.
Organic cotton farmers: Meeting LaRhea Pepper -
We meet an organic cotton farmer, LaRhea Pepper, from the US in the High Plains of Texas - where there are 1.2 million hectares of cotton growing in that region alone.
It is literally the largest plot of cotton in the world.
Only in the last ten years, 80% is now GM cotton (genetically modified).
She grew up on a farm and married a guy who grew up on a farm too - around the time that new chemicals and intensity of use, continued to rise. And then in 2005, Terry - her husband - began to have some health problems, and discovered he had glioblastoma multiforme, a brain tumour in stage 4 aged 47. He died at age 50.
The neurosurgeon who operated on him said that this type of tumour found in men, 45 to 65, working in agriculture, or oilfields is common.
And although there is no hard evidence, or blood test to show that the use of cotton chemicals and agricultural chemicals, led directly to the death of Terry, there are too many connections with the death of his father who also grew up on a nearby farm.
LaRhea Pepper and her close family still live among 1.2 million hectares of cotton, using many chemicals. But, Organic cotton to them has become imperative after their losses. It has become imperative that they change their agriculture and speak out about long-term sustainability and consequences of cotton farming.
In conclusion -
Fast Fashion needs to produce fast, cheap cotton, so the burden falls on the textile worker who has to produce faster and cheaper.
Ironically, the textile worker is the only point of the supply chain where margins are compressed.
We have these huge companies going to a factory in Bangladesh, they make an order for 1.5 million jeans 30 cents each, 50 cents each ... How can it be ethical?
Also, from the point of view of the consumer, is it really ethical or moral to buy a shirt for $ 5 or pay $ 20 for their jeans? Who are we kidding?
How can it be fair to accept that these poor, impoverished workers (slaves would be a more apt term) continue to survive on subsistence wages?
We should be very clear about what is a living wage?
H & M has dominated the fast fashion model, becoming the second largest clothing company in history. With annual revenues of over $ 18 billion dollars, now they are one of the largest producers of clothes in Bangladesh and Cambodia. Unfortunately, like other large retailers who were asked, they refused to grant an interview for this film.
If there was no such thing as fast fashion, there would be no need to have a summit in Copenhagen to try to solve the disaster and the annihilation of the environment and destruction of social justice, which has been caused in the last 15 or 20 years of its existence.
Will we continue to turn a blind eye to the lives of those who are behind our clothes? Or will there be a turning point, a new chapter in our history, when together we begin to make a real change, to remember that all the clothes we wear was made by human hands?
Despite all the problems that seem to be so far away from home and so out of one persons control, putting your money where your mouth is and only investing in companies that DO pay people a fair wage and treat them ethically can slowly begin a new revolution of shopping - we just need to shout about it!!
"Fair trade is the public response to correct social injustice in a system of international trade that is largely dysfunctional, where workers and farmers do not receive a living wage, and where the environment is not considered at all to make the products we buy every day."
“Anyone who criticises me for talking about fair trade is a few pebbles short of a beach. Because everyone should care about it, just like everyone should care about the environment, because we all live here.”
Chris Martin (musician)