The scandalous headline splashed across the British tabloid page said it all: “This is what a CHUMP looks like: Miliband under fire for wearing £45 ‘feminist’ T-shirt that is made in a 62p-an-hour sweatshop.” The target of this Daily Mail exposé wasn’t the usual salacious celebrity scandal: it was a garment factory in the Indian Ocean island nation Mauritius, where reporters traced the origins of the now-infamous heather-gray shirts displaying the glib slogan: “This is what a feminist looks like.” It was part of a charity campaign to rebrand feminism as cool, fun, carefree and fashionable.
And it can also be hypocritical, evidently. The Mail ran photos of Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband smugly posing in the shirt, alongside a portrayal of colorfully clad South Asian factory workers, apparently proudly displaying their handiwork—the same damning garment—in the grim Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile factory, full of women huddled over sewing machines. So that’s what a feminist looks like?
The stunning juxtaposition in the tabloid spread, activists have pointed out, is actually quite an ordinary scene in the South Asian manufacturing hubs that feed the global fashion production chain, where women earn pennies an hour to produce clothes that sell for well over their weekly wages.
Labor groups seized the opportunity to raise awareness about garment workers across Asia. The IndustriALL union coalition, which has also campaigned for the victims of Bangaldesh’s Rana Plaza factory disaster, points out that the factory workers were part of a larger labor system that fuels the fashion industry through mass exploitation. Workers face extremely harsh, hazardous labor conditions, while organized labor is often heavily suppressed. While the T-shirt slogan adds a tinge of irony, these factories, which had purportedly been vetted by the brands but were allowed to impose such conditions, are not the exception but the rule of global manufacturing.
Since the Mail broke the T-shirt story, the campaign’s big-name sponsors, the fashion retailer Whistles and the charity Fawcett Society, have dodged media inquiries. But the labor activists who work with Mauritius garment workers have stepped up to champion their own brand of feminism.
Local labor organizers have demanded higher base wages and revision of an outdated old payscale under a three-decade-old remuneration order. Jane Ragoo, general secretary, and Reeaz Chuttoo, president of the Confederation of Private Sector Workers (CPST) tell The Nation via e-mail, “It has the worst condition of work, i.e. 45 hours of normal work and 10 hours of compulsory overtime. The basic wage is even below poverty line.” (The estimated poverty line in 2012 was Rs6200 per month—about US$200—which is already just a fraction of what’s needed to support a family).