We are honored to be joined by Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS); Robyn Lawley, an Australian supermodel who has graced the covers of Sport Illustrated and international editions of Vogue; and Judy Gearthart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) in Washington D.C. From the runway to the factory floor, women and girls are finding their voice and calling for greater transparency and accountability in the fashion industry. We spoke about how women working at opposite ends of fashion’s supply chain could stand in solidarity to forge a more just and sustainable industry.
SARA: Kalpona, you started working in a garment factory when you were very young. What was that time in your life like?
KALPONA: I started working when I was twelve-years-old. I was toiling away in the factory working 16-20 hours a day. I was making just $6 a month. That was my life. I would go to the factory with my ten-year-old brother and there were many child workers in the factories. Without knowing the law and my rights, like how much I should get paid, how long I should work, how I should be treated, it was a very dark time.
“I started working when I was twelve-years-old. I was toiling away in the factory working 16-20 hours a day. I was making just $6 a month.” – Kalpona Akter
SARA: What is the salary of a garment worker in Bangladesh today?
KALPONA: The minimum wage is $68 a month. Even in Bangladesh, that isn’t enough money for one person to live, let alone support a family.
SARA: Bangladesh’s garment industry is about 80% women. Some people would say that the industry has empowered women because it has allowed them to work outside the home and lifted them out of extreme poverty. How would you respond?
KALPONA: From the total workforce, over 80% of them are women, but our women are just given one step toward empowerment. They are still working at the poverty line as the wages are very low. Many of them don’t really have ownership of their wage, as they are expected to give their wages to their husbands, father, brother, or guardians.
Still, we need to recognize that this industry has helped women workers come out from their abusive relationships and it has helped to reduce child marriage a little as well.
SARA: Robyn, as a successful model, do you see the fashion industry as an industry that empowers women?
ROBYN: The answer to this question is complicated. I have, at times, felt empowered by the industry, and modeling has been empowering in the sense that it has given me visibility and financial independence. Modeling is one of the few jobs where women are paid more than men. But, increasingly, what’s important to me is having a voice, which is more possible now than ever, and being able to help shed light on issues that matter.
What’s the point of having visibility if you aren’t able to use your voice and have an impact? We have a long way to go, but more transparency along the supply chain, including in our immediate industry, is definitely needed.
“We have a long way to go, but more transparency along the supply chain, including in our immediate industry, is definitely needed.” – Robyn Lawley
SARA: Kalpona, what was the moment when you decided to become a labor activist?
KALPONA: I decided to take a labor law class that was being offered to educate the workers about their rights. I sat there for four hours and I came to learn that my workday should only be eight hours long and that I shouldn’t be treated badly. The management cannot slap on my face any time they want. The building should be safe. I do have a right to organize. At the time, I didn’t know any of that. So as soon as I learned my rights, I started organizing in my shop floor.
When I was organizing the factory, many of my co-workers lost their jobs. Later I was fired and blacklisted throughout the industry. They made my life so difficult that I didn’t even have money to put food on the table. Luckily, the union hired me as a full-time organizer. Since then, I never stopped.
When I became an activist, I lost my co-worker. As you know, he was a labor organizer and he was killed. The government didn’t like what he was doing. So he was tortured to death. Nobody was prosecuted for his case. Over the years, I have seen many of my coworkers face falsified charges against them, including me. I was in prison as well. So it hasn’t been easy to come from working as a garment worker to where I am today.
“I have increasingly started to think about ‘who made my garment?’ However, the workers and the conditions under which they work are out of sight, out of mind.” – Robyn Lawley
SARA: Robyn, do you think people at our end of the supply chain think about who makes their clothes? Are models and creative professionals empowered to speak out on their own behalf, and on the behalf of others?
ROBYN: I have increasingly started to think about ‘who made my garment?’ However, the workers and the conditions under which they work are out of sight, out of mind. Honestly, I think we all struggle to face the realities of what is going on behind closed doors. And the supply chain is long. Where was the cotton grown? Where was the fabric dyed? What about the animal that the fur or leather comes from? What life did they have? Even if a designer product is ‘hand made’ in a certain country, we’re still not entirely sure the products to make said garment were sourced ethically.
SARA: Judy, you, Kalpona and I have all advocated for clothing companies to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which over 200 clothing companies have joined. Why is the Accord important?
JUDY: The Accord is the first time that global brands came together to make a time bound commitment to ensure remedy for workers. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights talks about the importance of ensuring remedy for workers, but past initiatives had brands walking away if their factories didn’t remediate the rights violations or safety problems identified. As a result, factories that had been inspected multiple times or even certified as safe – like Rana Plaza, Tazreen Fashions, or Ali Enterprises – collapsed or burned to the ground. Over 1,500 workers were killed in garment factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan in less than one year, making it clear that brands needed to make a greater commitment to the workers in their supply chains.
“Over 1,500 workers were killed in garment factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan in less than one year, making it clear that brands needed to make a greater commitment to the workers in their supply chains.” – Judy Gearhart
The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was negotiated between global and local union federations and global brands to address these recurring failures in supply chain monitoring. Previous brand initiatives had been confidential and voluntary, with no worker involvement in the governance or oversight of the monitoring. The Accord effectively raised the bar on transparency, commitment to remediation, and required the brands to sit down as equals with trade unions to develop and implement solutions. The result has been 60,564 repairs made and violations corrected in 1,685 factories, benefiting a total of 2 million workers.
KALPONA: The Accord on Fire and Building Safety is a big step forward. Most of the brands that have signed are from Europe, though there are U.S. companies as well. What makes this agreement different is that it includes workers’ voices, and workers are included in the monitoring and inspection. So this agreement really has made a difference.
“According to the World Bank, Bangladesh is considered the most climate-vulnerable country and is expected to feel the economic impacts of climate change most intensely.” -- Sara Ziff
SARA: Switching gears a little, in graduate school, I studied climate change and adaptation with a focus on Bangladesh. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh is considered the most climate-vulnerable country and is expected to feel the economic impacts of climate change most intensely. Kalpona are you concerned about climate change?
KALPONA: Yes, this is true that climate change is a bigger issue for our country and I’m concerned about it. The impact of climate change is making our people rush to the city and end up with a poverty job. The people who are most affected are women and children. Every year, the sea level is rising. We are loosing huge amounts of land to the river with devastating floods. Too much rain is forcing people to rush to the city.
“The impact of climate change is making our people rush to the city and end up with a poverty job. The people who are most affected are women and children.” – Kalpona Akter
SARA: Robyn, we’ve walked in two Climate Marches together. Why do you care about climate change?
ROBYN: Climate change is a reality, not someone’s personal economic agenda. I have a daughter whose life I want to protect—and that means protecting the environment. We are already starting to see the consequences of climate change. Each degree warmer will bring huge amounts of destructive changes that we’re not ready for. Renewable energy is available now and is more affordable for the masses than fossil fuels, which will run out. We can’t ignore it. It’s basic science.
SARA: Judy, do you see coordination between labor activists and environmental activists?
JUDY: There is an emerging awareness that the apparel industry needs to address environmental impacts more seriously. There have been some helpful exposes of the pollution caused by the leather tanning industry in Bangladesh and India and there are some Chinese community groups raising concerns about factory pollution affecting them. But in most places workers are earning subsistence wages and still struggling to have a voice at work and to be safe on the job, so it’s difficult for them to seek out environmentalists.
“There is an emerging awareness that the apparel industry needs to address environmental impacts more seriously.” – Judy Gearhart
It would be great, though, if more environmental activists could help raise awareness about the industry’s impact on local communities and engage with workers’ organizations to help drive reforms in the apparel industry in a way that also lifts up workers as key agents in the solution.
The current apparel industry model is built on brands always pursuing the lowest price, which means that factories continuously wager whether or not they’ll have enough orders to keep running at full capacity. As a result, they take on more orders and cast off the poorest paid to the less visible subcontracting sector. These uncertainties combined with slim profit margins, especially for the less established factories, result in poorly built, unsafe factories and polluted waterways.
And what makes it worse is that the local governments need to regulate industry compliance and repair polluted waterways, but they remain underfinanced because they are offering tax breaks to factory owners. It’s ironic that the UNDP or UNICEF might be brought in to help build water and sanitation infrastructure in the apparel worker communities because local governments can’t do it themselves.
SARA: Kalpona, how do you think we could build a ‘model alliance’ in a way that would support your efforts? In other words, how could people on our side of the fashion industry join forces with you to promote decent work and better conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh?
KALPONA: As a result of disasters like Rana Plaza, more and more consumers have become outraged. They are starting to ask questions of the brands about who makes their clothes. When it comes to what the Model Alliance can do, educating the consumer is important. They have the purchasing power. If the consumers started to ask more questions of the companies, then that would make a huge difference. We have been talking about ethical buying for a long time, but it’s not being heard.
“If the consumers started to ask more questions of the companies, then that would make a huge difference. We have been talking about ethical buying for a long time, but it’s not being heard.” – Kalpona Akter
JUDY: The apparel industry needs to undergo a seismic shift. The majority of the industry currently promotes mass production over quality and fast fashion over timeless classics.
It’s probably super nerdy to think this, but I can imagine a shopping experience that is much calmer, less hectic, with fewer garments jammed onto each rack. Couldn’t we start a slow fashion movement – or better yet, a socially woke fashion movement? Currently, this is beginning among high-end producers, like Stella McCartney, but it’s currently all too high a price point and not impacting the way most people shop. This is how the organics movement started as well. Over time, more and more consumers started stepping up to pay more for organics.
ROBYN: Creating an alliance is a necessity. If we don’t unite as an industry, and support those who are most vulnerable, we’re not going to make meaningful change. Having some basic protections and knowing our rights – at whatever point we’re working across the supply chain – is key.
JUDY: I’m hopeful that by bringing together fashion industry influencers like Robyn with worker organizers like Kalpona, we might be able to foster more initiatives that go even above and beyond what the Bangladesh Accord achieved. We need systems that don’t only aim to ensure a neutral impact for apparel producers, but a positive impact on workers, their families, and their communities.
Kalpona Akter is the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), one of Bangladesh’s most prominent labor rights advocacy organizations, and is herself a former child garment worker. BCWS is regarded by the international labor rights movement and by multinational apparel companies as among the most effective grassroots labor organizations in the country. Levi Strauss & Co. calls BCWS “a globally respected labor rights organization, which has played a vital role in documenting and working to remedy labor violations in the apparel industry in Bangladesh.” Kalpona is an internationally-recognized labor rights advocate and has traveled widely to speak about the deplorable conditions that Bangladeshi garment workers face every day. She has been interviewed extensively by local and international media, particularly following the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse.
Robyn Lawley has worked as a model for over a decade, appearing on covers such as Vogue, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Elle. She was also one of the first models above a size 10 to be featured in the Sports illustrated swimsuit issue and major brand advertisements for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Chantelle and Pantene. Originally from Australia, Robyn has spoken openly and adamantly about systemic health concerns and pressures in the industry, and she has written articles on the topic for The Daily Beast. Robyn also published and photographed a cookbook, Robyn Lawley Eats, based on her original food blog of the same name and she designed a swimwear line for sizes 6-20. Robyn continues to model and also does videography and photography work.
Judy Gearhart is the Executive Director of ILRF since March 2011. Judy is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School for International and Public Affairs, teaching the course Human Rights and Development Policy since 2002. Previously, Judy coordinated legal research and training programs for workers and trade unions at Social Accountability International, led field research and evaluations for UNICEF and the ILO’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor in Honduras, and worked for women’s rights and democratization with NGOs in Mexico. She has published on women’s rights, children’s rights and labor relations. Judy holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.