In the weeks leading up to International Women's Day, fashion editors' inboxes have been riddled with pitches from brands claiming that their female founder or donations to Planned Parenthood or girl power slogan t-shirts make them feminist exemplars. But so many of these brands fail to address the people who make their products, people who are by and large women.
Those often-invisible women are exactly the people whose lives and needs the Garment Worker Diaries, a recently-completed yearlong research project, sought to examine. Undertaken by nonprofit Microfinance Opportunities (MFO), funded by the C&A Foundation and championed by Fashion Revolution, the Garment Worker Diaries followed women in Cambodia, Bangladesh and India to better understand the economic situations of those who make our clothing.
"We've been doing these types of studies for about ten years now," says Guy Stuart, executive director of MFO, to Fashionista over the phone. "They're based on a methodology where we ask some very simple questions every week to the same set of people. With just that core set of questions, you build up a picture of the dynamics of someone's life over the course of a year."
This method of research allows for a picture of how garment workers are actually living, regardless of what the person who runs their factory or the brands that utilize their production say. To avoid bias, subjects were randomly chosen from communities that MFO identified in advance as having a high percentage of garment workers.
While some of the findings of the study are what you might expect — like the fact that garment factory employees work a lot for very little money and experience alarming levels of food insecurity — other findings were more surprising.
"One big takeaway... is that the situation in Bangladesh is by far the worst of the three countries," Stuart says. "The average number of hours worked per week is far higher and the pay rates are very low in comparison to Cambodia and India, even after taking into account the different costs of living."
Considering that Bangladesh has roughly 4 million garment workers, that means a lot of people are being impacted. Stuart also noted that in Cambodia as well as Bangladesh, women work tons of overtime — but are rarely compensated adequately for it.
"According to the law in Bangladesh they're supposed to get paid double for over time, and in Cambodia, they're supposed to get time and a half," Stuart says. "But when you speak to women in both countries, they are not even aware of what the legal overtime rate should be."
The situation in India isn't perfect, either, but Stuart says that it's significantly better than what workers in Cambodia and Bangladesh face. In India, workers are more likely to receive at least minimum wage and not work excessive overtime. There are still problems — Indian garment laborers often face humiliation and harassment on the job, and the health insurance their companies pay for often falls through when it's actually needed — but their situations are, on the whole, less dire.
"One of the things we hope comes out of the India data is that people go, 'Well, look what can be done,'" Stuart says. "It's not perfect in India or in our sample in any way, but it is an exemplar of how garment workers can be paid and can lead an okay life."
It might seem like a depressingly low bar to have, but Stuart's point is an important antidote to those who shy away from reforming the garment industry in places like Bangladesh or Cambodia because it's "just how things have to be" to keep manufacturing costs low for brands. The example of India's garment laborers proves that doing better is indeed possible.
Stuart's greatest hope for the Garment Worker Diaries is that the data reaches local policy-makers and affects their decisions. But the project is a good reminder for Western brands and individual consumers, too. We all need to cultivate more of an awareness of the real, complex lives of the people behind our clothing — especially if we aspire to be intersectional feminists who champion the rights of all women.
See the full Garment Worker Diaries reports here.