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).