Resisting colonialism through fashion

By Matt Trinder

THE legacy of colonialism is being used by the fast fashion industry to exploit garment workers around the world, a major UK campaign group warned.

Labour Behind the Label (LBL) is currently asking people to wear only six pieces of clothing every day for six weeks as part of its Six Items Challenge to raise awareness of the issue.

This follows Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen’s comments to parliament last month about the poor state of working conditions in factories supplying the UK’s booming fast fashion industry.

He said the exploitation that goes on was a source of “national shame”.

LBL campaigns manager Meg Lewis told Redaction Politics: “The globalised world as we know it is a product of colonialism, where people and resources in the global South were exploited for the benefit of Western countries.

“Many of our current global trade structures, including those we see in the garment industry, are a continuation of those relationships.

“We now buy around five times more clothes than we did in the 1980’s.

“This means there is a huge market for cheap fast fashion.

“Competing brands will often force suppliers into low-pricing models, squeezing the wages of garment workers and sacrificing factory safety in the process.”

“This is unsustainable for garment workers and our natural resources. Anything that helps to slow down fashion should be welcomed.”

Image: K Kendall @ Flickr

Mr Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, made his intervention following concerns for 10,000 garment workers in Leicester who are feared trapped in modern slavery and paid just £3 an hour.

The Six Items Challenge promoted by LBL allows for unlimited access to underwear, footwear and sports gear, but main items of clothing such as dresses, trousers and jumpers are to remain the same throughout.

LBL, a workers cooperative founded in Bristol in 2001, conducts research and lobbies in support of workers’ demands for improved pay and conditions.

By working with trade unions and NGOs, the group has been instrumental in pushing UK retailers to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety as well as supporting workers in Indonesia to receive legally-owed severance pay.

A new transparency tool will be launched by LBL in the spring, which will allow people to compare how much brands claim to pay their workers versus how much workers are actually paid.

Lewis claimed the tool will help to amplify garment worker voices and strengthen LBL’s campaign for living wages through transparency.

“The real disconnect between consumers buying a finished item, and the conditions in which the product was made, allows brands to maintain their reputations, whilst garment workers are paid poverty wages,” she said.

Image: Robert Scoble @ Flickr

“This lack of transparency hides exploitation from consumers and allows workers exploitation to continue and flourish.”

She called on the British government to prioritise wages and conditions in the garment sector in the UK and abroad.

The group also demanded the enforcement of the 2011 UN guiding principles on Businesses and Human Rights, which hold businesses to account for human rights in their supply chains.

She said: “Globally, governments need to step in and defend workers’ rights through legislation.

“This includes enforcing law around minimum wages and defending workers’ rights to collective bargaining through unions.”

“Information on the Six Items Challenge and other LBL campaigns can be found at labourbehindthelabel.org.

LBL is the UK representative of the Clean Clothes Campaign. 

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