Jo Wood visited garment workers in Bangladesh. She tells Fiona Sibley about the astonishing contrast between city slum-dwellers and a fair trade rural producer group.
It’s no longer a secret, but the living and working conditions of the workers in garment-producing countries remain fashion‘s guilty conscience. While clothing on the UK’s high street continues to sell for rock-bottom prices, there’s a knock-on effect that many of us, so distanced from those garments’ country of origin, seem content to overlook.
So believes Jo Wood, founder of Jo Wood Organics, who recently made a trip to Bangladesh with the ethical clothing brand, People Tree, to witness the acute difference between the lifestyles of garment workers employed by fair trade producer groups and those subject to exploitative free-market conditions.
“On the whole people in the UK have little or no idea of the conditions these people have to work in and the ‘pittance’ wage they get,” says Wood. “I was half-prepared as I have visited developing countries before and so I knew what was in store, but it’s always an eye-opener to see how other people live.”
Accompanied by Safia Minney, the founder of People Tree, Wood’s trip to Bangladesh took in two diametrically opposed communities. The first destination was Swallows, a fair trade producer group located in Thanapara, a remote rural village in north-west Bangladesh. A supplier to People Tree, it is a model of how fair trade garment production can work sustainably.
“At Swallows, it was a warm community of women who all have a great sense of independence but also work so well together in good conditions,” says Wood. “The village they live in is totally self-sufficient, yet it is miles away from what we would term civilisation. They have a school, a crèche for the younger children, learning programs and an organic garden.”
In contrast, a few days later, Wood visited slum-dwellers in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, where she was faced with a more brutal way of life she describes as “survival of the fittest”. With no access to ethical employment, “up to six people live in a tin room on bamboo stilts above heaps of rubbish, and they pay 900 taka rent each for a bed,” says Wood. “Considering they earn 1662 per taka month, way below the minimum wage of 4000 taka, it isn’t hard to work out how wrong this is.”
In her video diary, it’s obvious how distressing Wood finds the experience of visiting the slums, and hearing how these women are not only faced with limited sanitation and poor health, but also separation from their children. “The conditions that they lived in the slums were appalling: the rubbish, the smell and the poverty,” says Wood. “Yet I was humbled by the people and their attitudes. They were still so positive and cheerful.”
In 2006, the charity War on Want alleged that garment workers living in Bangladesh pay a high price for our cheap clothing. Its report, Fashion Victims, claimed to find pay as low as 3p per hour, and poor working conditions, in certain factories that supplied clothes to UK stores including Primark, Tesco and Asda. Two years later, last December, a subsequent report, Fashion Victims II, claimed little improvement.
One solution to garment workers’ poverty is fair trade, with workers being paid a fair wage and provided with adequate employment conditions.
“If you are an ethical and fair trade producer like Swallows, the workers don’t have to live in the slums,” says Wood firmly. “The workers can stay in their village with their families, their children can be educated and they also work in safer working conditions. Profits are also put back into the local community, making it a self-sufficient and rewarding scheme.”
People Tree works with 50 fair trade producers in 15 countries, ensuring all its production meets the criteria of the International Fair Trade Association. Its clothing designs are drawn up with the purpose of creating work in developing countries, opting for labour-intensive hand-production techniques that create demand for skills such as hand-weaving, knitting and embroidery.
Minney advocates an overhaul of the international fashion supply chain and calls for fair trade legislation to be more actively applied to alleviate poverty in these vulnerable communities. To campaign towards this end, she recently launched a charity arm, the People Tree Foundation, and invited Wood, already an advocate of organic beauty, to be its ambassador.
“I was hoping to gain a greater insight into fair trade clothing manufacture and the impact it has on the local communities,” says Wood. “I have believed in and bought into fair trade for a long time, but the trip heightened my belief.”
For Swallows, what began as a relief program in 1973 to provide aid and opportunities to local women is now a fully self-sustaining operation, with handicraft employing more than 200 women. It has since developed a number of community programmes, including a local primary school that caters for 600 children.
Guinea, a Swallows employee, feels that discrimination and lack of opportunity for women in Bangladesh are the biggest barriers to improving living conditions there. But, she says: “The fair trade principles applied by People Tree have created economic stability for Swallows, allowing it to become an independent organisation. It has led to the empowerment of the women of Thanapara.”
Wood was moved by her first-hand experience of the terrible disparity of livelihoods in Bangladesh. So what’s the solution? “There is so much to be done out there, where do you start?” says Wood. “If just 10p was given to the workers (by the retailer), it would raise their wages by 20%. That’s a start.”