The expression, ‘Rags to Riches’ has never been more appropriate. The Sunday Times of London has just published its annual ‘Rich List‘ and the top names all come from the fashion world. The Family Weston, which owns Holt Renfrew, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason among other consumer goods companies, clocks in at number 11 with over $10.11 billion (USD). Sir and Lady Philip Green (Topshop) rank 16th with $5.9 billion, as well as the fastest growing fortune courtesy of chain’s expansion into Canada, U.S., Brazil and Australia. The Times also published a list of the world’s richest rich and the Big Kahuna is, once again, the Waltons of Walmart fame, with a total recorded wealth of $136.8 billion.
How nice for these purveyors of schmata, both high-and-low, fast-and-slow. But you know who’s still in rags? The exploited workers in South Asia, as well as those closer to home, who toil for peanuts, often in hazardous conditions, risking their lives to make disposable ‘fast fashion’ for Topshop, H&M, Zara, and Walmart.
With their closets brimming with ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ glad rags from Topshop, Zara and H&M, fashionistas are not renown for their highly-developed social consciences. Somewhere in the deep recesses of their brains there may be the faintest twinge, a momentary wavelet of queasiness, as they wonder how on earth those hand-embroidered sequin hot pants could possibly sell for $39.99? Then, blessedly, the anxious moment passes and, before you can say ‘Flash Sale’, it’s back to shopping bliss.
Here’s how: garment workers are worked to the bone for a pittance. Factory deaths are a common occurrence in places like Bangladesh, which has replaced higher wage China as the destination for cheap ready-made fashions. The primarily female workforce, including children, are often locked in these buildings, forced to work 12-hour days in order to fulfill the just-in-time manufacturing needs of trend-driven chains. McKinsey, a consultancy group, has recommended unannounced factory visits by international buyers as one way to ensure that their off-shore business partners comply with basic labour standards. The Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement seeks to upgrade factory conditions and ensure regular inspections. Walmart, H&M and the Gap have yet to sign it.
Closer to home, the Waltons, Greens and Westons and their lieutenants, when not counting their money, are busy busting unions. Their customers might be interested to know that both Walmart and Holt Renfrew successfully blocked United Food and Commercial Workers Union from representing their workers.
When workers in a store in Quebec successfully voted in favour of the union, Walmart closed the location just days before the contract settlement, putting 190 people out of work. Walmart said the store was unprofitable. Walmart also closed an automotive centre in Gatineau after the employees unionized and an arbitrator imposed a wage increase. Among other heavy-handed practices, Walmart videotapes its employees and it distributes an anti-union handbook to its managers. Recently, Holt Renfrew successfully rebuffed a unionizing effort at their Yorkdale location in Toronto. The union alleged that the company kept raising the sales thresholds for employee commissions.
There’s something terribly off-putting when you see these Sirs and Ladies in the social pages of newspapers and magazines, playing polo with royals, sipping Champagne and sunning on their yachts when you know how those billions have really been made: young kids working like coal miners, women dropping from exhaustion at their sewing machines, and Third-World labour conditions replicated in places like East London and Brampton, Ontario so we can sport the latest fashion trend. Glad rags? No, just sad.