How can we use the law to make the fashion industry fairer for women and the planet


In March 1911, at a Manhattan garment factory, more than 100 people, mostly Jewish and Italian migrants, some of whom were as young as 14, were trapped inside and died when the factory was shut down. burnt. Management had locked the doors.

In the following years, the workers mobilized. Their protests catalyzed major legislative reforms in the United States that we still enjoy today – social security, unemployment insurance, abolition of child labor, minimum wages and the right to organize.

Yet the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire is an alarming reminder of the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in the Savar Upazila district of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which left 1,134 people dead, mostly young women, and more than 2,500 injured.

The Rana Plaza was home to factories making clothing for renowned global brands, but the spotlight on this tragedy is now fading. Years later, accountability for the resulting safety agreements remains insufficient, and many factories continue to escape scrutiny.

Consumers are increasingly looking for sustainable and ethical fashion. We believe these goals are inseparable from an industry that embraces gender justice. But gender justice cannot be achieved through consumer demand and boycotts alone. Instead, we need gender responsive law reform.

Our new research presents six ways to shrink a fairer, more sustainable fashion industry.

1. Responsibility

The gender hierarchy of the fashion industry is ingrained. Field workers are largely female, while floor managers, security and factory owners are largely male.

Women workers are vulnerable to harassment, violence and exploitation. There are no adequate complaints mechanisms and women often risk reprisals.

Accountability is needed not only in the clothing producing countries, but also in the countries where the clothing is sold, and at all stages of the supply chain.

Modern slavery laws, including the Australian Act of 2018, establish reporting obligations for businesses, requiring them to report on the due diligence they have exercised in relation to potential risks of exploitation in their supply chains.

But the responsibility must go beyond the current “denunciation and humiliation” provisions.

Sanctions should be imposed and used to fund compensation for victims, not only for workplace accidents, but also for workers who suffer gender-related injuries.

Read more: Senate vote to ban slave imports shows the weakness of Australia’s modern slavery law

2. A living wage

The minimum wage is seldom the equivalent of a living wage, a wage which ensures a decent standard of living for the worker and her family.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for full and productive employment and decent work for all.

In factories, this would mean recognizing that a living wage is needed so that workers can afford food, water, shelter, education, health care, transport, clothing and more. basic needs. This must be coupled with an appreciation of how workers are affected when rental prices exceed annual minimum wage increases.

Sustainable economic growth also requires the financing of workers’ social security, including maternity leave, unemployment insurance and disability insurance.

Read more: It would cost you 20 cents more per t-shirt to pay Indian worker a living wage

3. Community

The workers are often migrants who leave their children in the care of their families.

Many garment-producing countries lack the gender-sensitive public services that women workers need: decent public housing, street lighting and health care in close proximity to factories.

The Sustainable Development Goals call for the recognition of the unequal share of unpaid care work carried out by women. This has an impact on the lives of women workers outside the factory. Without this recognition, gender work will continue to support the global economy.

Women also face gender-based violence inside and outside the factory. Legislation is needed to protect workers against such violence in all spaces in which they move, including commuting.

4. Taxation

Potential tax revenues are lost by governments of garment producing countries due to regulatory loopholes.

Rather than directly owning production plants, some companies claim to purchase their products from “independent suppliers”. This principle of independence eliminates the need for large retailers to pay corporate tax in these countries.

This loss of income has a disproportionate impact on women, especially by compromising the provision of gender-sensitive public services. Comprehensive social protection schemes remain underfunded.

Reforms aimed at closing these tax loopholes could lead to a significant increase in public revenues for countries supplying clothing to finance these essential services.

5. Representation and voice

Women constitute the majority of garment workers, but their influence on business and government decision-making remains marginal.

Trade unions have improved their representation, but their approach to gender equality is often fragmentary. Many women fashion workers are still not unionized. As a result, the fundamental concerns of women workers often receive insufficient attention.

The implementation of the International Labor Organization’s labor standards could see more spaces open up for the interests of women workers to be expressed and heard.

Read more: Shocking reality of Bangladesh for workers highlights key role of unions

6. Responsible consumption

Consumer choice is often presented as the key to transforming the fashion industry. Consumers must be persuaded to make decisions based on human rights, in the same way that they are convinced by brand, quality and price.

Consumers may look for clothes labeled as “ethical fashion”, “organic” or “eco”, but shoppers are also wary of “greenwashing”.

Read more: ‘There’s not much I can do’: We asked fast fashion shoppers how ethical concerns shape their choices

Although imperfect, the European Union’s proposal to make the environmental footprint of clothing transparent should allow greater transparency on the environmental impact of fashion labels.

This transparency must also extend to human rights issues regarding the way clothing is made.

It is clear that law and fashion have a lot to gain from each other. But there must be a more solid and effective solution than the transfer of responsibility from companies to individuals. A simple boycott might not be the best choice: instead contact your local MP and encourage them to care and demand gender-sensitive law reform.


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