Searching “feminism” on the H&M website yields a single result, a white jersey crop top with black lining that reads “Feminism: the radical notion that women are people.” H&M, the second largest clothing retailer in the world, suggests we style the piece (which costs less than $20) with biker trousers, suede sandals, and a fringed cardigan. For an outfit that showcases the word “radical,” the notion put forth here is relatively thin: that this feminist-branded H&M shirt is a statement worth making.
It’s a statement just as much about the company who makes it as the young woman who buys this shirt and provides advertising not just for herself as a feminist but H&M as a feminist company. She might tag the company’s Instagram in their photos, include #hm in her captions alongside the shirt, or simply tell their friends where she bought it; H&M gets to profit off her stated politics on that lightest of platform, the crop top.
Currently, the Swedish company’s marketing campaign is built into a content platform labeled “H&M Life: A World of Inspiration,” a slogan that punctuates portraits of Laverne Cox, Jennifer Lawrence, and Katy Perry. The company wants to be inspiring and ubiquitous: accessible but cosmopolitan, cheap but with well-traveled tastes. It is consumer empowerment, that classic “feminist” thing.
But of course, the company’s image looks far different to the garment workers that produce H&M’s clothes. Last Friday, on Human Rights Day, a group of laborers in Cambodia organized to protest the practices of H&M and other key international retailers. Supported by the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), over 6,000 Cambodian workers rallied in Phnom Penh, Kampong Speu, and Kampong Som for fairer wages and better working conditions. These Cambodian activists were met with support from activists around the world, including laborers in India, where thousands of garment makers in six factories producing for brands like H&M and Gap wore solidarity stickers during their shifts and rallied outside their factories after work. Workers in two unionized factories in Turkey took similar actions as well.
While Cambodian laborers continue to lobby their government for an increased federal minimum wage, the campaign intended to put external pressure on the brands—in particular, pressure on the brands to actually bargaining with Cambodian unions. Garment workers have simple demands. They want to make at least $177 a month; they also want to be able to unionize without dismissal, and have rejected the draft of a new anti-union law that impedes unionization by forcing excessive government regulation (such as the government creating federal standards for who is and isn’t allowed to serve as a union leader).
The Cambodian garment industry is notoriously anti-union. Employers have been documented using intimidation, bribes, and the creation of yellow unions—unions set up by companies or the government—to prevent the vitality of independent unions in factories. Companies also generally rely on short-term contracts as a way to keep workers from exercising their rights; they often simply fire workers who begin organizing once their three or four-month contracts expire. The industry makes up to 80 percent of Cambodia’s total exports, and so this tactic is enormously disruptive for the country’s politics and its population.
Mrs. Mao Sophea, 27, worked in the garment industry for ten years and is a local C.CAWDU president. She was working at Full Fortune, a factory that makes garments for Dignity Knitters, a company publicly listed as one of H&M’s suppliers, when in September 2014 she was dismissed from work along with 27 other Full Fortune employees who had become union members that June. She was six months pregnant at the time.
Sophea wasn’t surprised: Full Fortune had previously used threats to force overtime on her and her colleagues and make them work on public holidays. Following the dismissal, Full Fortune workers still employed in the factory collected H&M garment tags to prove their peers were producing for H&M at the time of the dispute. C.CAWDU has presented the case to H&M: the company blames unauthorized subcontracting and denies having any responsibility for the working conditions there.
As documented in the Human Rights Watch report “Work Quicker or Get Out,” subcontracting in Cambodian factories is prevalent. Anonymously using one direct H&M supply factory as a case study, the report documents how subcontracting makes the production of cheap clothes even cheaper; it funnels work from unionized facilities with better working conditions to non-union factories where employees work longer, for less, and usually in worse conditions.
By outsourcing, parent factories create loopholes that allow them to bypass compensatory days off and proper overtime wages. Subcontracting furthermore makes the chain of accountability hard to track: brands only pay parent factories, and garment tags, such as those stitched on H&M t-shirts, only name the primary factory from which they were sourced. The system often keeps subcontracted employees from knowing what brands they’re even producing for, and allows brands to continue to feel blameless.
Cambodian garment workers see establishing stronger federal labor regulations as vital to improving their lives. Subcontracting will always funnel work to the most inequitable factories, and without an increased federal living wage, plenty of factories will continue at the current minimum (formerly $128 a month, now $140 a month ) in order to appease brands like H&M.
Within this system, naturally, there is further inequality. 90 percent of Cambodian garment workers are female. But when I asked Sophea if it was easier to be a man working in a factory, she wrote back, “Of course.”
Garment workers typically work 48 hours per week, but because these workers don’t earn a living wage in their base salary, most of them accept as much overtime as possible, often without taking the paid evening breaks required during overtime shifts. According to a 2015 survey of Consumption Expenditure of Garment and Footwear workers in Cambodia, prepared by the Cambodian Organization for Research and Development and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, “Nearly all (87 percent) the workers needed to do the over time job in order to get extra income to support their everyday living conditions.”
All of this overtime leaves Cambodian laborers very little time for anything else. Pregnant women in particular are not allowed time for doctor visits, and face consequences for not being able to complete what is essentially mandatory overtime. Human Rights Watch documented cases of discrimination against pregnant women in at least 30 Cambodian factories, and Sophea told me that it’s “typical” for factories to dismiss pregnant employees, just like union workers.
Cambodian workers want to keep their jobs; they also want these jobs to allow them some dignity. In solidarity with them, the largest anti-sweatshop organization in the U.S., United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), asked consumers to contact H&M and the other targeted brands, like Walmart and Zara, in an attempt to persuade the companies to pay factories a higher rate for their work on Human Rights Day.
USAS wasn’t asking consumers to boycott, but to signal to the company—and the executives who have the power to order these changes—that consumers are aware. College students, within the company’s top demographic, led actions at H&M stores across the country, delivering formal letters of complaint to H&M store managers asking for increases in the federal minimum wage, and using flyers to inform customers shopping in the stores about the way H&M treats the people behind their products and about what exactly those people want (legally binding agreements between brands and Cambodian unions, which would ensure union rights in all Cambodian supply factories). The unions are also asking H&M to increase the price it pays to factories who do implement these higher labor standards so they can make a real living wage possible for workers.
According to a USAS international campaigns coordinator, these types of store actions get documented by the retailer’s general management and communicated to the company’s corporate offices. USAS has a history of using in-store actions to enforce brand accountability. And while most of the flocks of H&M goers last Friday were still presumably doing more shopping than rallying, the hashtag #WeNeed177 trended on Twitter all day, showing photos from actions and words of support from workers and allies around the world.
One of the primary difficulties in the ethics of fast fashion is that boycotting these brands doesn’t help, a sentiment repeated by international workers, including Kalpona Akter, one of the leading labor activists in Bangladesh. Refusing to buy that “feminist” H&M shirt doesn’t rearrange the multi-tiered relationships corporations have with clothing producers. When not specifically called for by the laborers, USAS and other labor organizations contend that consumer-created boycotts often harm workers more than they help. Anti-brand is not the same thing as pro-worker, and according to USAS, “voting with our dollars” isn’t a particularly effective way of getting federal and corporate reform.
“It is the multinational brands who extract by far the largest profits from the labor of Cambodian garment workers, yet they hide behind layers of outsourcing and subcontracting to avoid responsibility. For us it is patently clear: the only solution to poverty wages in the garment industry is genuine collective bargaining between the brands as the principal employers of garment workers and Cambodian unions. The time for PR façades and hollow statements is over. We demand real accountability,” says C.CAWDU Vice President, Athit Kong, a former garment industry worker.
The garment workers’ globalized action on Human Rights Day comes at a time when activists are already rallying against H&M’s business practices elsewhere, in Bangladesh.
Three of the largest industrial factory fires in garment industry history have occurred in the past three years in Bangladesh, including the Rana Plaza disaster that killed 1,139 workers and injured 2,500 more in 2013. Following Rana Plaza, H&M was the first and largest buyer to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an ordinance ensuring their factories would be thoroughly inspected and invested in to improve safety standards. Although H&M was not producing at Rana Plaza during the disaster, they continue to make clothing in Bangladesh, the country that tails only China as the largest exporter of clothing in the world. And like Cambodia, Bangladeshi women account for a large majority of the garment industry’s factory power, making up about 85 percent of workers.
While H&M was the first signatory of the remedial accord, the gesture was largely symbolic. A September 2015 report reveals H&M is far behind completing a number of the “fixes,” and is thus still ignoring the looming threat of deathtrap factories in Bangladesh. The fixes are basic: things like designating clearer fire exits and installing fire-grade doors that don’t automatically lock workers into the factories.
H&M’s official response to the report maintains, “Fire exits are one of the most fundamental requirements for a supplier in order to be allowed to produce for H&M,” but the company is aware of many of its factories not meeting the remodeling deadlines outlined in the accord. H&M has admitted to being only 60 percent through the remediation process, citing logistical problems in Bangladesh like the availability of certain types of fire doors. The irony of a $20 billion fast fashion corporation taking over two and a half years to ensure safe factory infrastructure is pretty blatant. In the most unnerving subcontracting cases, Bangladeshi workers are still making H&M clothing in factories without any fire exits at all.
H&M’s public financial statements indicate that the company’s current business model spends a lot more on marketing and advertising than it does to actually acquire all of the garments they tap top celebrities and It Girls to endorse. They spend about just below $6 billion USD to get the clothes, only to spend a little more than $6 billion USD on non-production related costs, like paying consultants and famous people to build their brand’s cool factor. In an average year, H&M ends up with $2.5 billion USD in pure profit before taxes and transfers, and continues to pay its billionaire CEO upwards of $16 million a year. They can afford to pay their Cambodian suppliers greater wages and ensure those economics trickle down, just as they can afford to spend money expediting factory renovations in Bangladesh.
Is it shocking to hear that the fast fashion we wear is powered by the abuse of women of color on the other side of the world? That Western companies are still extracting labor, the ultimate resource, from South Asian countries formerly colonized by European powers? While Sweden may not have originally colonized Cambodia and Bangladesh (the French and British did), H&M benefits from an undeniably colonial model. They’d be saying more if they changed that shirt’s slogan to “Feminism: the radical notion that the woman who made this was paid a living wage.”
Tierney Finster is a writer and actor from Los Angeles, CA. She’s written for Playboy, Purple, and Amuse, and was a researcher on HBO’s new documentary series SEX ON. She is currently a senior editor at MEL.
Top image via Getty, next image via Instagram, other images via the Cambodian Labor Federation