I attended two weddings during the last two months of 2015. I was quite pleased with myself when I “recycled” the dress and shoes I wore to the first wedding and wore them to the second as well, reducing my fashion consumption. But as I view photos of myself at those happy events–looking like an “angel” someone said–wrapped in tulle, satin, and shimmer, “angelic” does not describe how I feel. I cannot help but wonder whose dainty fingers might have been used to attach the sequins that made my dress sparkle. Who stitched beaded flowers onto mesh over its “sweetheart” neckline? What kind of price was paid so I could have this beautiful dress, and who bore the real cost?
After scanning the tags hidden in folds of fabric, I found what I was looking for: the source of origin. My British-designed dress was made in India. I might have wondered sooner and applied the same ethical “screening” to the purchase of this dress as I do the other garments and products I consume, but I ordered it online and source of origin was not included in the product information. Still, the presence of the elaborate beading should have served as an indication that the product was likely embellished by hand and, as Marc Bain points out in his article on home workers, it was probably done “by a woman who was paid a pittance for it.”
By now you may have heard much about “sweatshops” and death-trap garment factories—places where our clothing is mass-produced by masses of under-paid, unprotected workers. But not all manufacturing takes place in factories. Millions of people work at home for fashion brands.
Home-based work allows workers to earn critical income to meet their household needs, possibly while caring for children or the elderly, but these workers make up an “invisible” workforce whose members are primarily employed informally, according to WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), an organisation dedicated to advocating for informal workers and studying the informal economy. WIEGO reports some of the things to be concerned about when it comes to home-based work include long hours, low wages, and an uncertain legal regulatory environment.
An international convention to protect home workers does exist. The 1996 International Labour Organization Home Work Convention (C177) promotes equality of treatment between home workers and other workers, with regards to occupational safety and health, minimum age for admission to work, maternity protection, and more. However, only ten countries have ratified C177. India is not one of them.
The women being paid “a pittance” for their delicate work on garments at home are not the only people I should be concerned about. In its 2014 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that in India’s garment industry, children have been involved in the manufacture of garments, weaving silk fabric and producing raw silk thread, spinning cotton thread and yarn, embellishing and embroidering textiles, “and sewing beads and buttons to fabric.”
A 2014 Huffington Post article on the fashion industry’s dark secrets reveals one of these secrets is “Beading and sequins are an indication of child labor.” The article’s author quotes Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? Through her own investigation, Siegle says she learned millions of home workers in some of the world’s poorest regions are “hunched over, stitching and embroidering the contents of the global wardrobe …in slums where a whole family can live in a single room” often with their children’s help, embroidering, embellishing, and beading the clothes that we wear. Siegle writes, “They live hand to mouth, presided over by middlemen, tyrannical go-betweens who hand over some of the lowest wages in the garment industry.”
Alessandra Mezzadri of the Centre for Development and Policy Research at the School of Oriental and African Studies reports in India, garment beading is largely done by a network of primarily female homeworkers, often with their children. “The task is considered to be at the bottom of the employment ladder and is paid miserable rates,” she writes. Jeemol Unni and Suma Scaria, of the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, indicate the incidence of child labour in Bareilly, India’s home-based garment embellishment sector, is high.
Did I walk down the aisle at my daughter’s wedding in an English castle wearing a dress beaded by someone else’s daughter in a tiny home in an Indian slum? I will wonder about that every time I see that dress in my closet and I will have to live with the feelings of guilt over the fact that the answer may be a sad “yes.” But although I made the mistake of not being more careful about this formal dress purchase, I can use what I’ve learned to ensure I don’t repeat the error. This year, I resolve to do that.
In the midst of poking around for information on my beaded dress for this blog post, I found myself back on the website I ordered it from, where another dress by the same designer is being offered for a 70% price reduction. I am instantly drawn to it. It’s fresh, it’s pretty, it’s so affordable, and it’s fashioned in one of my favourite colours! But it features a “gorgeous hand-embellished neckline.” With my new resolve, I am going to resist this one.
If you would like to be a more conscious consumer and purchase clothing made ethically, check out some of the companies on my ethical fashion list. I would love to hear about any additional ethical fashion companies you have purchased from. Please share them in a comment to this post!
To learn more of the fast fashion industry’s dirty secrets watch the documentary “The True Cost,” and read my review of it here.
Header image: © MEHMET CAN / iStock