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Interviews: The clothes she wears

Updated Wednesday, 5th July 2006

Siobhan Wall talks about 'The clothes she wears' - featuring the clothes worn by women in eight different countries worldwide, providing an insight into their lives, socially and economically.

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Copyright The Open University


Siobhan Wall: My name’s Siobhan Wall. I’m an artist and a writer living in Amsterdam, and I was invited to show my exhibition, The Clothes She Wears, today, and this is quite an unusual exhibition because I invited eight garment workers worldwide to send me the clothes they actually wore, not the clothes they made but the clothes they wore, for the exhibition. And I think what’s interesting about the show is that it brings something that is quite distant, geographically distant, in close proximity to ourselves in London.

The show has actually toured around Europe, it’s been to Ghent and Amsterdam, Utrecht, but this is its first showing in London. And the clothes came from eight different countries: a woman in Bulgaria, a woman in Thailand, a Chinese woman who is an immigrant in Australia, she was a homeworker, the Netherlands, a Turkish woman living in Amsterdam, the UK, a woman in Leicester, a woman from Mexico, a young woman in Sri Lanka and a woman in Lesotho in Africa. It’s a project; it’s an art exhibition which invites us to imagine the lives of the garment workers, the people who make our clothes.

So instead of having this sort of vague idea, or just photographs of the women, if you have the clothes here and you can touch them, it’s almost like having the women present in the room. So it’s a kind of tactile reminder of the fact that these women are really no different to ourselves, they’re just in situations where they’re earning very little and their working conditions are usually appalling. Since I brought the exhibition to Europe and to London, some of the women have changed their situations.

For example, the woman in Leicester has lost her job because she was a homeworker in Leicester and the work that she was doing has now been contracted out to China. So she’s had to retrain as an administrator and learned computing skills. And the woman from Thailand who worked in a factory called Bed & Bath, her shirt is quite interesting, because she had to make the pink shirt with the blue embroidery on, embroidery of the name of the company Bed & Bath, and when she first joined the factory she was told she had to sew the shirt she had to wear as her uniform.

But she had to pay for the shirt at a much higher rate than she would if she bought a shirt in the market. So even your uniform, if you’re working in a factory, you can be exploited on your first day of work. But her story’s quite interesting because she actually was on strike with other workers because they weren’t getting paid by their employer, and so the money that I got from a Dutch humanitarian organisation called Hevos, I got hundred and fifty euros to pay each woman or the workers’ organisation who would then distribute the money, they gave the hundred and fifty euros to the strike committee so it was a great support for them.

I didn’t kind of ask the women to send the clothes without getting some remuneration. And since the factory closed, the Bed & Bath factory closed, the workers actually joined together and set up their own factory and they produce clothes under a label called Made in Dignity, and today at the conference I showed people during the talk one of the garments they produced, and it’s got a big logo on the back which says Made in Freedom and instead of, you know, a kind of world symbol or something, what it’s got is something that looks quite similar to the symbols of washing powder that you’d get but it says Made in Freedom and No Exploitation, so it’s quite a strong, stark image.

So that’s a kind of positive story. But most of the women just earn less than the minimum wage and often don’t earn enough to be able to buy new clothes themselves. The woman in Lesotho, for example, now she was quite lucky, she had a job in a factory, a lot of people in Lesotho have to get up at 6am and in a huge crowd they wait outside the factory to find out if there’s work that day. It’s really difficult for women because then they can’t organise childcare in advance, they’re just hanging around to see if they’re going to be hired for work, and so Mariana, who’s the woman from Lesotho, actually does have a job.

But she doesn’t have enough money to enable her to support herself, she has to rely on her sister to buy her clothes and give her second hand clothes and to keep her and her children alive basically, and that’s a shocking situation that was is assumed to be a minimum wage in many countries is actually not a living wage. There’s a big difference between what a minimum wage is and a living wage is, and the Clean Clothes campaign who I worked with, I was the artist in residence with them from about 2003 to 2004, I suggested to them the idea of the exhibition, and they put me in contact with the workers’ organisations, and that’s how I found out about the conditions under which these women are working.

They produced a really good book about social auditing, recently, and this looks at how there’s a very strong need for companies to be independently assessed to see whether the suppliers actually have a code of conduct and then whether they’re implementing that. Social audits are very different to financial audits because the social auditors come in, and they don’t look just at the wage slips and overtime, they’ll also find out, try and find out whether the workers are suffering sexual harassment, for example, because a lot of young women work in the industry, they’ll find out whether there’s discriminatory hiring, they’ll find out whether health and safety is being compromised.

For example, when official auditors from the larger multinationals come in, often the companies will suddenly provide clean drinking water, rubber gloves for workers, eye protection and open the fire exits, and then as soon as these official auditors have gone, often ones who are paid for by the buyers, the Western buyers, then all this safety equipment and all the kind of basic needs that workers have are withdrawn and the situation goes back to kind of how it normally is, which is often, you know, not good conditions for workers at all. So it’s very important to have social audits produced unexpectedly so that the company can’t prepare and hide information.

Often companies have two different sets of accounts, one are the official accounts which will show that some workers for instance work up to 72 hours without a break, and they’re often given amphetamines to keep them going, and then there’s the unofficial accounts which are shown to inspectors where the workers are seen to be working kind of an average of 40 hours a week which are invented. So it’s much better to have auditors who are independent of the buyers because then they won’t look just for quality of sewing and stitching, they'll actually talk to the workers outside the factories and try and find out whether the, in confidence, you know, what’s happening in the factory.

Apparently though it takes about six or seven interviews for the worker to gain their trust, and often workers don’t want to reveal what’s going on in a factory because they’re worried then the factory would be closed down and they’ll lose their jobs, so they collude with the factory owners and the managers because they want work. And in fact the Clean Clothes campaign doesn’t want to stop us buying clothes from factories, they just want conditions to improve for the workers and for environmental concerns to be addressed so that workers don’t have toxic chemicals when they’re working with cotton or other dyes and products.

So I suppose interdependency in some ways it’s about recognising that, the kind of conditions in which I’d like to work should be applicable for anybody in the world and that there is a link between my purchasing of clothes and somebody working in a factory because I could, as a Western consumer I could put pressure on the buyer, for example Wal-Mart, Marks and Spencer’s, and start to insist that with my purchasing power I want to ensure that the workers who are producing the clothes that I’m wearing that have travelled from that factory to the shop are produced under fair conditions.






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