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Feminist T-shirt makers’ working conditions not shocking, but the norm

When I saw Ed, Harriet and Nick in their T-shirts I immediately wondered who made them. Surely a feminist campaign would know that the millions who sew almost everything that goes into our wardrobes are part of the so-called Cut Make and Trim army – predominantly young women in the developing world who are notoriously vulnerable to exploitation.

Only 18 months ago 1,129 workers died at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, brands said sorry and alliances were set up to bring change. So what happened here?

Although it’s been the subject of allegations in the past (2007), the manufacturer CMT seems to have a relatively good industry reputation and is feted for efficiency and a 24-hour operation offering fast turnaround orders (cynics might say that is where the dormitories come in).

Analysts describe Mauritian labour laws as relatively stringent and point to the fact that the apparel industry has moved away from cheap labour and cheap products. That trade goes to Bangladesh, Vietnam and the Philippines.

However it is clear that Mauritius is now using many more migrant workers in its 50,000 strong garment industry, many from Bangladesh. Migrant garment workers are even more vulnerable to exploitation. Still, Whistles may have thought it was picking the best of the bunch. The truth is that the pay and conditions alleged at CMT are typical of the current global textiles industry, not a shocking anomaly.

So perhaps we should ease up on the shadenfreude that accompanies Harriet Harman wearing sweated clothing at PMQs. Every second of every day we’re wearing clothing produced by exploited female workers. I’d love the Fawcett society to address what we do about this.

But there is another issue. Whistles points to several accreditations held by CMT including Fairtrade and Oeko-tex. However, most of these standards cover the fibre and govern chemicals during processing – not the conditions or wages of employees. Codes of conduct remain voluntary and seem concerned with extreme scenarios. Fulfilling an order without actually killing garment workers still seems to constitute a ‘good supply chain’.

Yes, since Rana Plaza there have been a lot of brands painstakingly tweaking these codes – often unintelligible to the non-industry eye. Yet it is far from clear this kind of regulation will solve the problem.

The issue remains that the fast fashion business model is predicated on speed to market and the constant supply of new garments. The hands behind the fashion remain well down the industry’s list of priorities.

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