From factories to acacia trees4 years ago
Since leaving my job in London as a Fashion Editor to live in Cambodia and then Burkina Faso, my perspective on the fashion industry has been transformed.
It’s been 10 years since I worked for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. Back then I cared more about style than where clothes came from. Now I’ve seen first-hand how garment factory workers in Phnom Penh live, and I’ve seen how factory-made imports have caused the demise of skills that were once at the core of African livelihood, identity and community.
Globalisation has changed the economies in Africa and Asia beyond recognition. Many are better off than before. Technology has thrown open the door for large-scale industry and mass-made products now flood the world for the benefit of us all. Or for some of us, anyway.
I have come to know some of the women who work in Asian factories and some who work in African villages. Rotha, age 21, is Khmer and lives in Phnom Penh – now a thriving industrial city and tourist hot spot. Ramata, 29, is Fulani and lives in sub Saharan Africa – better known for famine, desertification and conflict.
Young women like Rotha make up the majority of the workforce in the garment factories of Cambodia. Many of them, like Rotha have come from the countryside to work and earn an income for the family back home. She earns the minimum wage ($100 a month) and she sends as much to them as she can but this leaves little to live off. The city is a daunting place and it is normal for girls like Rotha to share their digs with 5 others – a room in a block of several, each with enough space for the women to sleep parallel and a stove to cook on. The bed is an elevated wooden platform with their belongings stored underneath, where cat-sized rats roam at night. They have pink mosquito nets and walls covered with magazine pages showing Khmer women in glamorous dresses. The window overlooks a swamp filled with rubbish.
The Bangladesh factory collapse last year has brought to our attention again the need for better factory conditions for garment workers in developing countries, but we also need to push for a living wage for women like Rotha too. Earlier this year four people were killed during a strike by garment workers demanding higher pay – $160 a month which is still nearly half what the Clean Clothes Campaign calls a living wage.
These workers may think their future lies in the hands of politicians and factory managers. But it is ultimately us, the consumers, who have the greatest power to influence their lives. As the Clean Clothes Campaign’s Tailored Wage report puts it, ‘Survival of the cheapest” has become the leading maxim, both in production countries as well as consumer markets’. If we keep buying cheap clothes and accessories without questioning their source, nothing will change.
In Burkina Faso, Ramata does all her leather weaving work at home, far from the city. There are no machines or factories here: she sits outside on a grass mat under a straw shelter. Her village is in the north, where children, chickens and goats run freely all day. The income she gets from her work enables her to stay in the village, and save a little too. Like her Fulani ancestors, she doesn’t have a bank account but invests her savings in the silver jewellery she wears which she will sell when she needs or wants to reinvest the money elsewhere. The Sahel is an unpredictable place to live and you never know if it will be a good or bad year for crops. Leather weaving is a family tradition that is proving lucrative again for this village. They cannot compete with the quantity of factory made products, but theirs is a unique craft which cannot be replicated easily and their allegiance to this ancient tradition is paying off.
Thanks to the growth of the internet over the last decade, it’s now easier than ever to buy and sell hand-made products from around the world or to at least look up the ethical credentials of the high street shops we’re buying from. We don’t need to travel to Asia or Africa to get the picture. And whenever we make a purchase, we are condoning the behaviour of the retailer, for better or for worse. It is time we started genuinelly caring about the source as much as the style of our clothes. It is time to change our perspective and see fashion in a new way – from the inside out.
Charlie Davies was formerly Fashion Editor for The Sunday Telegraph Magazine. She founded Precious Girl Magazine, a publication for the garment workers of Cambodia in 2004, and now serves traditional artisans in Burkina Faso with SAHEL Design (www.saheldesign.com). Charlie is the Fashion Revolution Day country co-ordinator for Burkina Faso.