OP-ED: Refugees could provide the answer in bringing manufacturing back to the UK

As seen on Fashion Roundtable.

Isolation is something that we’ve all increasingly felt over the past few months. In light of the hightened realisation of our global connectedness, we should feel a deeper empathy for refugees who perhaps feel this level of isolation on a daily basis. Cultural barriers, stigma, stereotyping and social invisibility are just some of the factors that contribute to the fact that refugees are being left further and further behind in our economy. Over the last year or so, I have become increasingly interested in how fashion can potentially bridge this gap and how we can ensure inclusivity and representation in our sector moving forward.  

According to the UNHCR, we are currently witnessing the largest displacement in history with around 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and of this, 26 million being refugees. Our industry is rife with human rights abuses and the Global Slavery Index estimates that around 40 million people are currently trapped in some form of modern-day slavery worldwide, with women and children disproportionately affected. Social inequality with cases of oppression and severe neglect are frequently documented— you only have to look at the-some 50 million garment workers working in the fashion supply chain and experiencing suspended and/or terminated jobs with little to no compensation, to recognise this. Furthermore, others are being forced to work in the midst of a pandemic in unsafe conditions to avoid destitution. This lack of transparency is a fundamental issue and one that we need to address if we are to see real systemic change and inclusivity moving forward. 

Although the media coverage of the pandemic has taken precedent over Brexit in recent months, transitions are still in place until the end of the year. Here in the UK, there is a very real issue within our manufacturing sector that Brexit will stop garment workers arriving from overseas as they’re not currently included on the shortage occupation list. Yet our education system has, for some time, failed to properly support textiles and fashion skills at key stages 1, 2 & 3. There exists a huge opportunity for training and apprenticeships which would assist in re-building our manufacturing. With this in mind, it’s estimated that there are around 120,000 refugees all of who have the right to work in the UK, yet their level of unemployment is three times that of the UK-born population. This shows that employers are largely ignoring these communities when there is a huge capacity for positions within our manufacturing sector and could also assist in better integration –  offering a wide range of skills, a living wage and a space to be valued and seen.

Eco-luxe brand Vanina is a social enterprise best known for its exquisite handmade jewellery and accessories created by craftspeople and artisans within the Homs refugee camp. The production process employs talented individuals such as weavers, leather makers, pattern makers and cutters and embroiders who provide invaluable traditional skills. Vanina advocates for engaged activism and has provided an important mechanism in empowering many workers to showcase their unique skills. Amsterdam-based sustainable-fashion company, Makers Unite also showcases the level of talent and skills refugees can bring to the table – leading a highly-skilled team of workers in creating their sustainable fashion collections. Their growing network of creatives is a diverse pool from around 21 countries, each bringing with them different languages, skills and creative backgrounds. These creatives ran successful interior design companies, were art directors, produced theatre and cinema, or trained as fashion designers in their home countries. Before they took refuge, they were people with careers, families and homes— I think this fact is often lost and something that we must remember in our effort to rethink our socio-economic biases. We should also recognise that refugees come with range of linguistic skills which would be an added advantage to businesses and could play a vital role in the economic success of our country internationally. 

Over the last few years I’ve definitely felt a shift in the diversity of models within the fashion industry and although we have a long way to go, Edward Enninful Editor-in-Chief at British Vogue, has definitely brought a fresh perspective on representation. Under his editorship model Halima Aden, who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, became the first model to wear a hijab on the cover – not once, but twice – making the case that inclusivity and representation were long overdue. Aden has since walked the runway for some of the top fashion houses – never compromising her values and becoming a strong leader in fashion activism. This July, the cover of British Vogue will feature 3 frontline workers and to me this is a celebration of diversity across the board, proving that we will hopefully start to see a shift in role models moving forward. Without giving strong women like this visibility, how can we ensure the next generation of women grow up with the confidence to own their identity and to stand up for what they believe in? Fashion can and should play a part in this. 

Finally, sustainability is a term that’s increasingly being thrown around a little too carelessly, with many fashion brands claiming this in their credentials. But to be truly sustainable, brands must address their social impact by becoming more open, inclusive and transparent in their work. Inclusivity and representation should be at the forefront in the media and for the first time in a long time, brands are being looked at critically by consumers who want to see more diversity. There is a strong case therefore that fashion could lead the way in becoming one of the most diverse and interesting sectors. If we truly embraced a new way of doing things by valuing a wide range of positive skills in an inclusive environment, this could have the potential to make our sector one of the most dynamic of all.