by Rebecca Prentice
Last Sunday, the headline screamed: “Exposed: Sweatshop ‘Slaves’ Earning Just 44p an Hour Making ‘Empowering’ Beyoncé Clobber.” British tabloid newspaper The Sun claimed that Beyoncé Knowles’ activewear clothing line, Ivy Park (with Topshop), was made in Sri Lankan sweatshops, where workers earn just £4.30 ($6.19) a day.
Copycat news articles soon followed: “Beyoncé’s Seamstresses ‘Paid Slave Wages,’” “Beyoncé’s Ivy Park Topshop Clothing Range ‘Made In Sweatshops,’” “Beyoncé’s Ivy Park Accused of Paying Factory Workers 63 Cents Per Hour.” Workers producing the Ivy Park clothing line were described as working long days, for low wages, living in boarding houses with few amenities and restrictions on their day-to-day mobility—which collectively amount to “a form of sweatshop slavery” according to Jakub Sobik at Anti-Slavery International.
Is it true? Is Ivy Park being made in slavery-like conditions half a world away? Given Beyoncé’s avowed feminism and devotion to empowering women and girls, exploiting young seamstresses to provide the Beyhive with activewear is an uncomfortable idea. But the truth of The Sun’s claims of sweatshop slavery depends in large measure on how you define “sweatshop.” How you define “slavery.” How you define “exploitation.” It depends what you think humane working conditions in global supply chains might actually look like.
Anthropology has a lot to tell us about each of these things.
We know that Beyoncé’s clothing line is made in Katunayake, Sri Lanka. To understand what this means, a good place to start is Sandya Hewamanne’s 2008 ethnography of workers in Katunayake Free Trade Zone, Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone: Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka. Hewamanne tells the stories of women who leave their villages to take up employment in global garment factories. With an anthropologist’s eye for detail, Hewamanne explains the workers’ hardships and limited choices without ever reducing them to the two-dimensional victims of tabloid headlines.
The factory workers stitching Ivy Park clothes earn low wages, particularly when compared to their American or British counterparts. That their wages are higher than the national minimum wage, and higher than elsewhere in South Asia does not detract from the fact that these workers do not make a living wage.
In an industry where global market competition has created a “race to the bottom” in labour standards, Sri Lanka has in many ways attempted to position itself as an “ethical” production site. With the phaseout of the international quota system in 2005, Sri Lanka launched a Garments Without Guilt campaign to certify its labour standards for foreign buyers. But, as scholar Kanchana Ruwanpura reminds us, audits and certification programmes that leave out a voice for organised labour cannot be assumed to safeguard worker’s rights and interests.
All this attention to Ivy Park provides an opportunity to talk about labour conditions in the global garment industry. But what kind of conversation are we going to have? We can talk about what it’s like to work in a low-wage, hyper-intensive industry. We can talk about the unsustainability of the fast fashion market, which is built upon cheap and flexible labour as well as environmental degradation. (And the role that celebrities like Beyoncé play in glamourising fast fashion.) We can take a cue from Bangladeshi anthropologist Dina Siddiqi, who challenges us to consider what global sisterhood and anti-sweatshop activism might look like if it were disentangled from condescension, moralism, and pity.
As far as we know, the production of Beyoncé’s Ivy Park clothing line is not very different from that of most other clothes we buy everyday. The story here is how commonplace the working conditions in Katunayake are, not how extraordinary they are. Sadly, that’s a story that rarely grabs headlines.
Rebecca Prentice is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sussex, where she co-convenes the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy. She is co-editor, with Geert De Neve, of Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World’s Garment Workers (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
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Thank you for the comment – funny how we share a last name! There are many, many initiatives to improve wages and working conditions. Most popular over recent years has been the “codes and monitoring” approach, where buyers (global brands and retailers) lay out specific conditions that they want met by their suppliers (garment factories in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other producer countries). I think that the factory producing Beyonce’s clothing line is being monitored in this way.
The problem with these codes is that on the one hand they are toothless, and can be gamed in various ways by either the suppliers or buyers. The other problem is the downward pressure on prices, which means that to stay competitive, buyers are asking suppliers to do impossible things: to produce quickly, be responsive to changing fashion trends on strict deadlines, all at a low cost. This is why “fast fashion” (super-cheap clothing that is tightly tied to changing fashion) gets singled out as being particularly bad for garment workers: margins are very small, labour costs get squeezed, and to meet the demands of foreign buyers, factories make workers do excessive, compulsory overtime on short notice.
There are lots of campaigns for a living wage, not only among local trade unions and workers’ organisations, but also transnational nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) like the Clean Clothes Campaign, which has an Asian Floor Wages campaign to push for a living wage. The question (sorry to raise more questions!) is who, ultimately, should be responsible. Should it be up to shoppers to buy “ethically,” like buying only “fair trade” brands? Should it be up to the governments of producer countries to ensure good labour standards, even if it means losing business to countries that are less rigorous about standards? Should it be up to corporations to make sure that there are good labour standards and living wages throughout their supply chains – even if it means their garments may cost more than competitors who are less ethical?
It’s hard to look at these issues and think that voluntary self-regulation alone is going to work (getting shoppers buying ethically; getting corporations to monitor their supply chains). It seems like state-level regulation is needed (because we don’t really have global-level regulation of labour standards, for example through the WTO), with a real role for organised labour. But there are entrenched interests that do not want regulation, and do not want organised labour to have a seat at the table. So the global institutions trying to make a difference (which was what you asked about!), like the UN’s International Labour Organisation, and NGOs like the Clean Clothes Campaign really have their work cut out for them!
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I thought that this was a very balanced and informative piece……which (I think intentionally) raises many more questions than it tries to answer.
Are there any effective global Institutions in place which are championing the struggle for living wages throughout the garment industry and similar industries?…..or is this an issue which does not lend itself to such an approach?