From Classroom to Global Supply Chain: The complicated relationship between gender and textiles

As seen on Fashion Roundtable.

Last November I saw an exhibition entitled ‘Button It Up’ at the Storiel, an art gallery in Bangor, North Wales. Although not largely publicised, the exhibition really struck a chord with me, discussing the misrepresentation around gender issues— both in the community and media. The piece that caught my eye was an embroidery sampler (a little like a workbook) showing a range of different embroidery techniques used for domestic darning, and also a great number of decorative stitches. This was something that would have acted as a reference piece and also demonstrated its maker’s skills. Up until recently these were deemed necessary life skills which were taught in schools, but this is no longer the case. The reason? Schools felt this fairly antiquated in the aim for gender inclusivity

To offer a little more context, fashion and textiles have always had a complicated relationship with gender. In Roszika Parker’s book ‘The Subversive Stitch’ she evaluates how embroidery is deemed almost a superficial expression of femininity. As a result, it’s classed as a craft and not an art form. Her study found that although embroidery is particularly intricate — it requires a high-level of expertise and its repetitiveness was highly influential in the fine arts movement — this underlying view of ’women’s work’ has always meant that it has been valued less than other arts.

In 2017, the British Heart Foundation ran a survey of around 2,000 adults to encourage people to buy an item of clothing and upcycle it in some small way. Of those polled, almost a fifth would rather buy a ‘new’ item of clothing than attempt to sew a button back on. With clothes prices now cheaper than ever before and the production of garments now happening predominantly overseas, fast-fashion companies are in a constant bid to source the cheapest possible labour. Around 75% of the 25 million garment workers are women and so, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the vast majority of those trapped at the very bottom of the global supply chain are women. As women, we are constantly pushing for a level playing field and while I acknowledge some of the freedom that globalisation has offered, it’s women who are still making our clothes and albeit at a violation of their human rights. 

In mass-manufacture supply chains, there is very clear evidence of a number of violations which affect a range of worker’s rights — from a severe lack of freedom of association, to forced child labour, health and safety issues, poor pay, zero maternity leave and evidence of harassment and abuse. This becomes even more complex as women not only work within factories, but also from home as homeworkers. There are also a large segment of migrant workers that have to take jobs where they can, often crossing borders and staying on the move to ensure their families have enough to survive. According to a report by Clean Clothes Campaign, entitled ‘Made by Women’, gender should be central to any discussions around labour. The report touches on the fact that in the majority of cases, women are not only the major producers of fast-fashion (working impossibly long working hours) but also the main providers in caring for their families and communities. It’s also evident in lots of the cases featured in the report, that these women will at some point have to leave their children full-time, often with grandparents, to be able to provide for them financially. So, when job losses occur as we’ve seen with Covid-19, whole families will become destitute. 

Gender-based violence is another very real issue for women in the global supply chain. Data by Global Labor Justice, found that women workers employed in a Bangalore factory supplying H&M, were threatened physically in a bid to meet pressurised production deadlines. The report interviewed around 331 workers employed across 32 factories which all supply H&M and the findings showed very clear evidence of gender-based violence. This included humiliation, physical abuse, sexual harassment including rape, low-employment security and prevention in taking bathroom breaks. Often women are understandably too afraid to speak out against management, and so the cycle continues. Further, something that hasn’t had enough exposure is employer control over women’s reproductive health– something that I find completely ludicrous. Garment factories have been known to ask women to sign a contract that ensures she won’t give birth while working for them, and others will issue forced pregnancy tests during employment. This is an infringement of a woman’s right to choose whether she wants a family and demonstrates a very clear violation for a women’s right to equal employment opportunities. 

Homeworkers are even less visible in terms of supply chain transparency, and in India it isn’t uncommon for women and young girls to be paid anywhere between $0.13 and $0.15 per hour. These workers are outsourced by garment factories and will often work without contracts and in poor conditions. In the report ‘Tainted Garments’ by Siddharth Kara, his research found that not one of the workers he interviewed had a contract or belonged to any type of union, while more than 42% began work as children. This is particularly tragic, because generations remain trapped in this way of working and miss out on an education and the chance to play— something we regularly take for granted.

The gender issues discussed here show a very real issue within the global supply chain. Journalists and activists alike have been fighting this for years. Brands can’t expect to work towards gender equality, unless the gender-based issues within their supply chain are addressed, as this feels particularly counter-intuitive. Collective bargaining (the official process by which trade unions negotiate with employers, on behalf of their members) is an important step in strengthening systems and ensuring a safer workplace environment. It would also allow workers to regulate their own workplace. I would stress that women’s voices need to be included in collective bargaining and in any agreements. This is vital in reducing the inequality that exists. Companies like People Tree are founded on a supply chain that values its workers – offering fair wages, good working conditions and gender equality. People Tree also go one step further and perform an annual social review to ensure transparency and accountability.  With companies like this in operation, brands have a very real case study to work from and could offer a means for workers to move towards economic independence— a supply chain model where workers are not only seen, but heard.