On Tuesday, March 22, a panel of experts joined us at Harvard Kennedy School for a conversation about labor rights, safety, and public health in the global fashion industry. The discussion centered around initiatives that would bring positive change to the runways and factory floors.
At a symposium at Harvard Kennedy School, model Iskra Lawrence and Bangladeshi labor leader Kalpona Akter discussed their respective efforts to empower women working across fashion’s supply chain.
Kalpona started working in a garment factory when she was 12-years-old. She worked long hours under unsafe conditions and earned $6 a month.
Iskra signed her first contract with a modeling agency at age 13. Constantly criticized for having “too big hips,” she was dropped by her former agency and pressured to lose weight.
“The fashion industry is a global, multi-trillion dollar business built on backs of women and girls,” said Sara Ziff, founding director of the Model Alliance and the moderator of the discussion.
Sara organized Tuesday’s event at Harvard Kennedy School of Government on labor rights, safety and public health in the fashion industry. She invited both women from the runway and the factory floor.
Today, Kalpona is a labor rights activist and has made many powerful enemies in Bangladesh. She was threatened and imprisoned on false charges. Her colleague was murdered.
Iskra is an icon of “plus-size” modeling. She uses her enormous fan base—1.2 million followers on Instagram—to educate girls and young women on their bodies and health. She has become an ambassador to the National Eating Disorders Association and opposes photoshopping of her images.
The stories that Kalpona, Iskra, and the other panelists shared at Harvard were often counter-intuitive and against stereotypes.
The seemingly glamorous life of the world’s top models stands in a stark contrast to a daily life of thousands of everyday working models and the girls who aspire to become models.
Models are often presumed to be independent contractors, rather than employees. As independent contractors, they don’t enjoy basic labor protections that you would expect, like a minimum wage or adequate recourse for sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Entry costs to the market—developing a photographic portfolio, comp cards, cosmetics—are so high that many aspiring models start careers heavily indebted that makes them even more vulnerable,” explained Ashley Mears, associate professor of sociology at Boston University, who researched the backstage of the fashion industry.
The panelists talked about initiatives that might bring change to the runways and the factory floors. Dr. S. Bryn Austin of Harvard Medical School discussed new laws in France and Israel that require health checks as well as emerging legislative efforts in the US. Annemarie Strassel, the Director of Communications for Unite Here, a union of 270,000 workers in US, explained her efforts to reframe perceptions of female labor and fight stereotypes.
Kalpona discussed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement to improve factory safety in Bangladesh: “Until today 200 clothes brands signed up. Most of them are European but surprisingly very few are American.”