The Women In Fashion

  • by Vivienne Austin

The garment industry has been historically dominated by women, with more than 70% of garment workers in China being women, 85% in Bangladesh, and up to 90% in Cambodia. For these women, their development is closely linked to their working conditions: They seek decent pay, dignified working conditions, and basic work security. They aim to move out of poverty, provide their children with education, and become more independent.

However, the reality for most garment workers in the Global South is far from ideal. Despite producing for some of the world's most profitable companies, they receive poverty wages, work in dreadful conditions and are required to undertake an excessive amount of overtime. In Bangladesh, the minimum wage for garment workers is £45/€62 per month, far from the £75/€104 required to cover a worker's basic needs, and even further away from a living wage. Many garment workers are working between 60 and 140 hours of overtime per week, and are often cheated of their overtime pay. Health and safety are often neglected, workers are denied breaks, and abuses are also common.



While women's integration into paid work has been an important force for emancipation and growing gender equality, factory owners have and still are exploiting women's unequal position in society to form a cheaper and flexible workforce. This exploitation has enabled European fashion companies to make huge profits while denying their workers the most basic rights. By outsourcing production, these companies can step away from their responsibility and play producers against each other to get the best deal. The deregulated nature of the global economy makes workers' legal protection very thin, and their right to organise and bargain collectively is constantly restricted.


Despite these challenges, many women are mobilising into unions and other labour movements to challenge the inequalities and exploitation in the garment industry. From Bangladesh to Cambodia and Honduras, workers are defying threats, violence, social oppression, and powerful capitalist forces to defend their basic rights. But of course, as citizens and consumers, we also have an important part to play in this struggle. Garment workers need resources and support to confront the powerful forces that they are up against, and there are many organisations that are working on these issues, such as Fashion Revolution, GBM Union, Human Rights Watch, Clean Clothes Campaign, Fawcett Society and many more. By supporting them, we can make an important contribution to the garment workers' fight. We can also act in solidarity with garment workers by putting pressure on brands to pay for the production and ensure that production is not moved to a new location if labour prices rise. 


In the last few weeks, we’ve seen nonprofits Human Rights Watch and Clean Clothes Campaign campaigning for US sportswear giant Nike and its supplier Ramatex Group to pay $1.4m in severance to Cambodian garment workers following a factory closure in 2020. Allegedly, since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, garment workers in Nike’s supply chain have experienced layoffs and terminations, arbitrary pay cuts, unpaid wages for hours worked, and gender discrimination at an unprecedented scale. The organisations have spread a petition, which you can also sign here.


If us consumers were to really think where these garments come from, would we really go through with the purchase? Or would we actually start asking ourseveles who made our clothes? Fashion Revolution’s Who Made My Fabric campaign aims to do just that. This campaign is calling upon citizens everywhere to demand greater transparency from brands by asking #WhoMadeMyFabric? They’re also calling for producers to tell us #IMadeYourFabric, so we can connect more closely with the people who produce the fabrics and raw materials we wear, as well as who makes them.


The garment industry has the potential to be an emancipatory force for women in the Global South. However, work itself is not sufficient for creating development and challenging gender inequality - the nature of work is equally important and must be urgently reconsidered. The most important source for that change comes from the garment workers themselves, but people also have an important role to play by supporting their struggle and campaigning for legislative change on international levels. Together, we can build strength and push for a fairer and sustainable fashion industry.


[Images sourced on

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