I was contemplating a particularly strange social media phenomena recently; where women post selfies with signs stating why they don’t need feminism ( for a giggle read this great come back). Anyway, I was considering this straight after I had made a post on a documentary exploring cheap clothing manufacture in Bangladesh and South-East Asia, in which I highlighted something I have noted before – that the cheap clothing industry operates cheaply primarily through the exploitation of women.
In fact 80% of the jobs in clothing production are occupied by women, though the lions share of senior positions and wages go to men. I have also noted in my post on the problems with clothing production that one of the serious hidden issues in clothing production are ‘homeworkers’ or ‘outsourcing’. Where a mainly female workforce, working from home is required to deliver massive outputs to factories for what equates to less than the local minimum wage (they are paid per garment not by the hour). This is possible because such work flies under the radar of the casual factory observer, they are often on no contracts at all and do the work casually, so there is no record either. Which is why I always put on my ‘face of skepicality’ (yep a new word I made up just for this) when people tell me they know their manufacturers are ‘fair’ ones because they have visited the factory floor. So fair trade is a woman’s issue because:
Women working in industry in developing countries are just like you and me but without real choices.
These women want freedom and choice and income independence and a good life for their kids. They however, have no fall back option, no support offered by the state when they have no paid work and no health system to care for them when they are ill. The reality is if they do not take that garment manufacturing job with all its poor conditions and hazards, they are in many cases, reduced to subsistence living, begging, prostitution, and in some cases sex trafficking of their children. When I write this in my safe comfortable warm choice filled life of education and freedom, I think this sounds absurd, how can this be? And because it is just so ugly to look at I want to deny it. I feel powerless to fix it, it paralyses me and I push it away. However that is it, the rock and the very very hard place that women who work in conventional cheap garment factories & other industry reliant of cheap labour, like tea, often face.
It is this squeeze that allows manufacturers and industry to exploit the mainly female workforce. Better the limited money, the poor conditions, the long hours than the ‘other’.
So when I say fairtrade is a woman’s issue because it focuses on achieving fair payment, fair conditions, women’s equality and education. When I am slack jawed by other women rubbishing the role of feminism in the reach for equal choice. It is because I know that it is primarily women that suffer (and their children) as a result of unethical production and manufacturing processes. It is because I know that their freedom, their equality, their choice is unequivocally bound up with mine and my daughters. That all of us, Women and Men, can agree that this ‘non choice’ these women face is something we would never want for the women & girls we love. That rather than feeling paralysed by our role in supporting this system, we can feel powerful about the change we can bring about through our choices, through the freedom we and the women that have gone before us have achieved.