What is the height of hypocrisy in Bangladesh

Five euros feminism for whites in Europe

I'm at the H&M on Kärntner Strasse and want to try a T-shirt, but the queue in front of the cabins is long. Colorful pieces hang from simple stands next to me. People walk through the shop with clothes on their arms, their eyes always on new finds. In between, employees rush back and forth. The fashion stores in Austria were closed for almost seven weeks. But that was history for over two months. Everything seems pretty normal here.

I look at my T-shirt and think of the feminist H&M advertising for the fall 2016 collection. The video celebrating women with different skin colors, bodies, sexualities, ages and gender identities.

I have that song in my head. "She’s a lady" is sung in the video, while a black trans woman, a white, old business woman, a woman with plump curves and fat pads and a woman with armpit hair are portrayed as beautiful and strong women. A cabin is finally free. I pull the t-shirt over my head and look at my upper body in the mirror. It says in black, bold letters: "Girls Unite". Girl, unite!

Without warning

In Srirangapatna, South India, women have actually been reuniting for over a month. Every day they sit in front of the factory where they still produced clothing for H&M before they left. On June 6, her boss announced over the loudspeaker in the factory that all 1,380 workers had been dismissed without notice and that they should not come to work on Monday. Pallavi, one of them, says: "It came without warning. Half of us had already left, the rest were just about to leave."

The reason for the layoffs? Allegedly missing orders due to Corona. So suddenly all the workers - most of them women - were without wages. On the same day, they started a daily protest demanding their reinstatement. After ten days, the worker Sanyia spoke into the micros of the Indian media: "Some of us are the only breadwinners in our families. We have no choice but to continue our protest."

Pratibha R., president of the GATWU union, which helped organize the protest, told India TV News that one reason for the closure of the factory could be union breakdowns. The Euro-Clothing factory is one of 20 factories belonging to the Indian supplier group Gokaldas Exports. "Our union is strong in this factory. It seems as if the management wants to turn the tap," says the union.

Just words

For weeks, the women have been going to the factory every day to protest against their dismissal and the breakdown of their union. On the 17th day of the strike, H&M tweeted that it was "in dialogue with the supplier and the union to resolve the conflict peacefully". Gautam Mody of the NTUI union countered the next day: Those were just words. "The workers have been protesting for 18 days, but there are no presentable measures from H&M."

But after a month of strike the women are slowly running out of breath. 300 women workers have already accepted dismissal under pressure from their husbands and parents in order to receive an offer of compensation. From 1380 only 600 workers are still protesting. The factory management urges her to quit. Mody says: "You are playing with the workers' lack of trust in the judiciary."

Euro Holding ECC2 is an official supplier factory of H&M. From a purely legal point of view, H&M is not responsible for the workers. H&M has its clothing made by young migrant women in the global south, but the group does not hire them itself. This production system is profitable for H&M and all other fashion brands. And this flexibility makes itself affordable, especially in times of crisis.

If, as with the corona pandemic, suddenly no clothes are bought for weeks, the risk is not borne by the fashion brands, but by the workers. They lose their jobs and wages when the brands stop placing orders with their supplier factories. A worker from Euro Clothing: "We are only valued when we work, but when there is no more work, we are no longer worth anything."

Cover raw material costs

Mostafiz Uddin, owner of Denim Expert Ltd. and suppliers to Inditex (Zara), Takko, Acardia and Peacooks, has felt the consequences of this production system first hand. In April, the entrepreneur from Bangladesh received a message from one of his customers, the Acardia Group: "You will note that we are able to resolve all orders in all stages. March was already on the way, we are ready to accept with a discount of 30%. (...) If you do not want to accept this suggestion, the order will be canceled. "

Uddin commented publicly that this only covers the raw material costs, but that he cannot pay the wages and operating costs with it. Since then he has tried to get his money - without success. Even when he asks the two non-paying brands, Arcadia and Peacocks, before the Eid holidays, to transfer the missing money to pay the workers the legally binding holiday bonus, he flashes.

He is desperate, posts a selfie with tearful eyes. He cannot imagine not paying them what they are legally entitled to. "We suppliers have no power in this system," he says on the phone.

Less respectful

Other factory managers are less respectful and pass the financial risk on to their workers. The layoffs related to Euro Clothing in South India are not an isolated case in the global textile industry. The global decline in clothing purchases and lockdown regulations are leaving millions of people unemployed. In Bangladesh alone, a million textile workers lost their jobs at the beginning of April. They often lose their home with their income. In the countries with a textile industry, for example, there was massive domestic migration of people who traveled to their rural hometowns after losing their jobs. Wherever possible, however, there is still a fight for jobs.

In Cambodia, Soy Sros, a local trade unionist from CTUM, was jailed for almost two months on April 4 for criticizing her employer, Superl Holdings Ltd., for possible dismissals via Facebook. While Sros was locked in a cell with so many women for weeks that they could not all sleep on the floor at the same time at night, trade unions fought internationally and nationally for their release. When these were finally successful on May 28, a completely weakened woman was released from prison. Her union managed to fight that she had to be re-employed. Now she continues to sew bags for the luxury brand Michael Kors. She did not get any compensation.

The situation in Cambodia is devastating. While the labor movement was able to more than double the minimum wage in the last ten years with the help of international solidarity, things have been going steeply downhill again since Covid-19. The company is calling for the minimum wage negotiations to be suspended this year. 450 of 1,100 textile factories in Cambodia have suspended their production, workers are still receiving almost 40 percent of the minimum wage. Many can no longer pay for their microloans. At the same time, the government accuses independent union president Yang Sophorn of "illegal activities" and threatens to dissolve the union.

Disaster capitalism

In Myanmar there is a particularly strong fight against the layoffs and union breakdown. At the Myan fashion factory, a supplier to Inditex (Zara), Mango and Primark, 520 workers were laid off on March 28.

A few minutes after the company union met with the bosses and called for an end to mandatory overtime, the dismissal of the 520 union members was announced. After that, the remaining 700 workers who were not union members continued to work.

Even before Corona, it was bad for the 500,000 people affected in Myanmar. "But now we are really seeing a kind of disaster capitalism," says Andrew Tillett-Saks, US union organizer in Myanmar. Previously, workers had successfully fought for improvements through strikes.

But during Corona times there are limited opportunities for strikes, and so trade unions must draw public attention. They try to put the buying groups in their factories under pressure on Facebook, Twitter and the like. Although the struggles, like that of Myan Mode, landed in international newspapers, the answers from the fashion brands were a long time coming. In the case of Myan Mode, it took almost three months for a part to be reinstated.

Cheap labor in the global south

The ultra-rich fashion entrepreneurs like to show themselves in a good light, Amancio Ortega, CEO of Inditex (Zara) and sixth richest man in the world, was praised in Spain for providing respiratory masks and paying his Spanish employees their wages during shop closings while in its subcontractors were fired.

H&M adorns itself with feminist empowerment statements. After the murder of George Floyd, it rained on the canals of the fashion brands Black Lives Matter Statements. The corporations adorn themselves with feminism and anti-racism, but in the global south they profit from the cheap labor of non-white women, which they simply get rid of in crises.

I stand in the booth at H&M and look at the price tag of the "Girls Unite" T-shirt. It costs five euros. That's five euros of feminism for white European customers like me. "Made in Bangladesh" is written on the label of the T-shirt. I wonder how the women who sew it are doing. Do you still have a job? Can they pay rent, food, school fees for the children? Do they have the opportunity to unite with their work colleagues in order to preserve their rights? (Anna Holl, July 25, 2020)