Voice of Witness is ‘a non-profit dedicated to fostering a more nuanced, empathy-based understanding of contemporary human rights crises’. They achieve this by ‘amplifying the voices of men and women most closely affected by injustice, and by providing curricular and training support to educators and invested communities’.

As part of their mission to illuminate human rights crises through oral history they have developed a series of books. Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy is a collection of stories from agriculture, resource extraction, and the electronics and garment industries. These voices represent the lived experiences of workers from the USA, Mexico, Guatemala, Nigeria, Zambia, Uzbekistan, India, Bangladesh, China, South Korea, and Papua New Guinea revealing the secret history of the things we buy, including lives and communities devastated by low wages, environmental degradation, and political repression.

As this month Sustainability in Style is focused on the Fashion Revolution, this book could not have found a better time to enter my life. Reading the account of Kalpona Akter (you can see her speak that the Walmart shareholder meeting here), a former child labour garment factory worker and executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) brought tears to my eyes. Her brave attempts to fight for her own and fellow workers rights and entitlements (such as pay for overtime work) has resulted in unjust punishment including jail time. This fight for rights also saw a torture and murder of a friend and fellow BCWS member.

Akter’s story made me realise just how important it is for us as consumers to ask our manufactures ‘who made our clothing’, as we suffer far less ramifications for asking tough questions than those who manufacture our clothes do. As consumers the most likely negative outcome we may receive for asking about manufacturing process and labour rights of a garment manufacturing company is that we may received no reply or perhaps a nasty email. In which case we can just buy from an alternate source. Unfortunately for people like Akter on the frontline of the $19.1 billion dollar per annum Bangladesh-USA garment export industry, asking tough questions can see you jobless, blacklisted from the garment production business, threatened, tortured, jailed, or murdered.

Ana Juarez, a garment worker from Mexico city summed up the Fashion Revolution message of there being a ‘real life person’ or ‘maker’ behind every garment despite the adversity she had faced in her manufacturing role stating that:

‘there was a beauty there at work. I began to enjoy myself in the clothing factory. There in the factory you get to know people. You know their lives, how they started out. And you begin to talk. You become a part of the family. More than anything, I enjoyed making samples, models for pant. Because it made me proud to say “I made that pair of pants”. The pants are not only a piece of clothing and nothing more. They are workers experiences and life that they give each day to the clothes that they sew. Tears go into it. Laughter goes into it. Dreams go into it. Many memories go into it.’

This passage really highlights the love, care and passion that goes into every item of clothing. Even if you are purchasing a $5 dollar t-shirt from Kmart that means very little to you as a consumer. You are buying part of someones life story and for many of the voices of the garment industry their life story revolves around long days and nights at the sewing table. Martin Barrios a labour organiser from Mexico acknowledges how difficult it is to bridge the gap between maker and end consumer noting that to effectively achieve change in the fashion industry:

‘we’re seeking conscientious consumers, consumers who know how to research, who know how to examine a whole production chain, who know how to follow up on the brands, who demand information from companies, an so on’

Of course for consumers analysing the production chain of a company isn’t always easy as many prefer to hid the makers in shrouds of mystery (in fact I marvel at how difficult it can be to find country of manufacture and even fabric content on many online store now). Often because they aren’t proud of how their items are being made or may not even know. Consumer pressure to show how items are made is a great start in increasing the transparency of the manufacturing process.

Fortunately as consumers there are tools available to assist in shopping for ethically made items which I will post about shortly along with a way to do a rudimentary assessment of companies you might like to purchase from.

I would highly recommend reading voice of witness stories as they do an excellent job of really driving home the humanity of the lived global experience. You will relate with these voices and live this experience as it is your own.

Have you read an account of a workers point of view in the fashion industry that you would like to share?

Please let us know below.

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