Ahead of eighth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh (April 24), Livia Firth launched a new Fashionscapes documentary about the urgent need for a living wage in the garment industry.
For me, activism has always been about being a challenger. When we start challenging the status quo, or even a simple action like getting dressed, and start asking questions… change really happens.
Something like this happened a few years ago, after I returned from a trip to Bangladesh. I went there to see what had changed in the two years after the devastating Rana Plaza garment factory collapse on 24 April, 2013, which killed more than 1 100 people. The majority of the victims were women, killed while they were sewing clothes for us. Let that sink in, please. At the time, I could not stop thinking about something Nazma Atkar, a garment worker I met in Dhaka, had said: “Livia, nothing will ever change unless there is a transnational agreement on wages. Until then, brands will always hop from one country to the other in pursuit of the cheapest possible production line.”
Would something like this even be possible, I wondered? At the next meeting of The Circle – the NGO I co-founded with Annie Lennox and many other amazing women, to work together to achieve equality for women and girls in a fairer world – I challenged some of our lawyer members with this question. Little did I know that that query would spark a revolution.
Six years and three reports by the lawyers later, and The Circle has just submitted a proposal of legislation to the EU parliament for a living wage. To make you understand why this is beyond exciting and a real game changer, let me put things in perspective.
The readymade garment industry stands as the poster child for exploitation. In an increasingly globalized world, companies source goods from factories where people work in conditions and for wages that would be illegal, and likely criminal, in the main marketplaces for those goods. So when a group of internationally renowned women working in senior positions began conversations with legal colleagues in garment hotspots including Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Cambodia, garment workers began talking to them after their shifts. Sometimes these encounters took the form of hurried conversations outside factory gates. Through this network, a flow of evidence began to travel, carried by women from the factory gates of “secret” factories to a network of women legal professionals across the world. Together, this network was able to prove that fast-fashion wages are in contravention of human rights. This is the biggest challenge to slavery in fashion that we have ever seen – and it doesn’t stop there.
With filmmaker Andrew Morgan, we decided to tell this story through a new episode of our Fashionscapes documentary series. Fashionscapes: Living Wage illustrates how The Circle’s mission of truly fair living wages will reshape an entire industry and work to create a more equitable, just, and humane world economy.
The battle for a living wage in fashion is a story that’s time is now. It reflects a growing understanding of ways to dismantle the dangerous status quo through nuanced activism. This story contains many pointers as to how to use radical, collaborative activism to speak truth to power and how to position and articulate a solution to a long-standing injustice. It tells the story of unexpected collaboration by people across transnational boundaries combining their expertise – whether that be legal or lived experience working day to day in this system – and using the tools of activism to bring decisive change. It helps shake the foundations of “head in the sand” passivity from “consumers.” It reinforces the agency of the active citizen.
As Bill McKibben, American environmentalist and co-founder of climate campaign group 350.org, says, “When we fight, we win a surprising amount of the time. So we should probably fight more often.”
Fashionscapes: Living Wage is available to watch at Fashionscapes.tv
Watch Livia Firth and Manuel Arnaut discuss all this and much more by tuning into Vogue Arabia’s Future of Sustainable Fashion digital event on June 28 at 4pm UAE time/3pm KSA time. Click here to register.
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