Inside Labour: Women’s oppression and the potential irony of orange

WHEN Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary general of the United Nations, delivered her powerful Nelson Mandela Foundation lecture in Cape Town last Saturday, she highlighted the disproportionate suffering of the female half of humanity.

In an auditorium festooned with the “bright and optimistic colour” of orange, she gave the depressing details of the ongoing oppression of women, coupled with the cry to action to achieve UN sustainability goals.

It was stirring stuff, and timely. And there is the request that all should wear orange on the 25th of every month as a sign of demanding the end to oppression of women.

I also felt chided for not having included the position of women in my column last week about the exploitation of children. Women are, after all, the child bearers, overwhelmingly the child rearers and among the greatest sufferers in the lunatic race to the bottom that our present economic system forces workers to engage in.

I plead guilty. However, I confess that I am not overly moved by arguments about the dearth of women CEOs of major corporations: a boss of whatever gender or ethnicity remains a boss, subject to exactly the same pressures. And “good bosses”, in trade union and worker terms, tend to go bust. Besides, if we don’t go beyond only wearing orange every month, we will largely be wasting our time.

For me, the awful tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh epitomised the systemic horrors workers face, coupled with its inevitable gender bias. On that occasion on April 24, 2013, an eight-storey building collapsed, killing at least 1 134 garment workers and injuring 2 500 more, nearly 2 700 of the dead and injured being young women between the ages of 18 and 20.

Before the collapse, cracks had appeared in the building. The shops and bank housed on the ground floor vacated it. But the garment workers labouring on the upper floors, three of which had been added without planning permission on an already sub-standard building, were ordered to continue working. They had to because pressure was on the meet deadlines set by the international buyers.

Working on tight margins and with tight schedules imposed by the likes of Walmart, GAP and other leading brands, the factory owners could not countenance any delays or increased costs. So the workers were ordered in. And then the building, its structure shaken by thousands of feet and vibrating machinery, gave way. 

It took three weeks of digging to unearth the bodies to reach an official death toll of 1 134. However, among the more than 2 500 injured, a number died later as a result of the injuries they sustained.

It was the worst factory disaster in history and, as a consequence, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among trade unions and human rights organisations. This was accompanied by blatantly hypocritical mouthings from some of the global chains whose products were being manufactured in the Rana Plaza building.

It was not their fault, they said. They had merely placed orders with Bangladeshi factories and were unaware of the conditions in which the workers had laboured or, for that matter, the state of the building. But they were named and shamed and the international trade union movement rallied to secure an agreement about improved conditions and the “ethical” production of goods.

Significantly, several leading brands missed the deadline to sign up to it.

Nearly five years down the line, very little has changed, although global brands now seem more aware that bad publicity about the treatment of workers producing their goods could impact negatively on their image and sales. As a result, there has been an increasing tendency among leading companies to stress that their products are produced “ethically”.

A classic recent example is American Apparel that advertises - along with video clips of apparently happy workers - that its clothing products are “Globally sourced, Ethically made, and sweatshop free”. But, according to evidence produced by the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium, that claim is far from the truth.

Many other leading companies who, like all the major sportswear labels, outsource production to wherever they can secure the cheapest price, also claim now to insist on “ethical” production and decent wages and conditions for workers.

Here is hypocrisy writ large: because these companies, in a globally competitive environment, still have to seek - and demand - the cheapest possible production cost.

And, of course, there is nothing to stop a factory awarded a contract by a global brand from outsourcing work. In fact, most have to do so since they could not profitably produce the goods required at the price quoted if they did so in their own “ethically approved” facilities.

This amounts to window dressing for global brands ranging from footwear to lingerie, clothing, and a whole range of fashionable bling, glitter and electronic gadgetry. This in a world where the International Labour Organisation estimates that there were, in 2016, nearly 25 million women, children and men working in forced or slave labour conditions.

Among these are prison labourers who over the years have, in the United States, for example, stitched for cents an hour some of the highest-priced lingerie brands in the world.

So let us by all means wear orange on the 25th of every month. However, the ultimate irony would be if the orange shirt, scarf, skirt, blouse or scarf so flouted was made by the very sweated/slave labour it was designed to protest about.