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Exploitation in the Fashion Industry

woman sitting at the desk with a laptop open with men pointing at her with worksheets.

People often talk about exploitation in factories in Asian countries, which is a good thing, and maybe a lot of people still don't know enough about it because it is so far away. Information is not so readily available if at all. I don't blame consumers solely. We all have other worries: work, relationships etc. Also, when I started caring about sustainability, I started seeing plastic that is non-recyclable everywhere, while previously, it had not seemed so obvious. This blab is to explain that I probably live in a sustainability bubble and general public do not know about the horrors happening in the factories abroad. I applaud various pages doing their bit to showcase the impact of our unlimited fashion consumption in Europe/ America on countries making the clothing for us.

However, what I would like to talk about today is people living in London working in the creative industries and specifically in fashion. Are the creatives better off? Some may be, but my personal experience has been disastrous, and I have talked to a few people, read a few articles, and it doesn't look good. Some could say that people in Europe/ America don't die from a factory collapsing on their heads - sure. I am not trying to compare the suffering; I am trying to see the effect. My experience has lead me to a hole that I am doing my best to get out of, but I genuinely struggle to do so.

When I was at uni I set my eye on the fashion industry. I still remember looking for internships (at the time they were unpaid, mainly full time, 6 months contracts - they still are despite the legislations put into place). I was really determined and spent all my free time applying. I took every internship offered; I always kept myself busy and tried everything from production to wholesale to PR to organising events. I even helped out with the design. I did everything and anything and helped beyond my responsibilities. (Most of these were part-time for an indefinite amount of time.)

I tolerated some rudeness, but I also had some integrity. There were jobs where bosses would ignore my existence, try to intimidate me, especially if I was alone in the space. The last draw was being told off for not forcing people who didn't want a drink to have a drink and for the way I served the drinks. All that after sending me all over London to buy all sorts of crap for the event from A3 glass frames to helium canister that I could not even drag let alone lift. I left after two weeks of working there after shouting my lungs off in the kitchen. Everyone was fascinated by my bravery because the whole team was as petrified of the person as I was. I don't think I was brave; I just couldn't anymore.

Reflecting on my jobs, I have been treated relatively well compared to some braver people out there that I know who would not keep quiet. It doesn't mean I was blind.

So what did I see and experience myself?

Being sent intimidating emails of seven screenshot pages (I was sent one and cried in the restaurant on a date with my partner, not awkward at all).

Countless skype and Whatsapp groups where even bosses get confused, lost and accidentally bitch about the employees that were in the group itself.

Quiet firing - the person disappears from the office midday or your coworker never re-appears in the office after the weekend, and you wonder whether they have been murdered.

Being shown how to sellotape a box, close an envelope, pack a pair of shoes (not pretty packaging, literally just put this pair of shoes in a box just like this: *puts a piece of clothing into a box in no specific fascinating way*).

Receiving the same whatsapp messages, skype messages, phone calls, emails about what needs to be done on the day- don't you dare respond only on one platform.

Being told off for hanging out with coworkers OUTSIDE of the working hours.

Being told off for talking to coworkers in person in the office about work instead of skyping.

Being talked to rudely purely because you are a woman and should be making soup at home instead of working in an office.

Having 10 minute lunch breaks, because more is an abuse of your working time.

Being put in a small dark room to be shouted at by a man (all good not scary at all).

Being told with this attitude (calling out abuse), you would achieve nothing in the industry.

Arriving to work in the morning to a room full of girls crying.

Coming into an office being terrified and thinking whether you will be next in line of all the terror.

Being told off for not looking at the work phone after 7pm (an hour after workday finishes) and on the weekends.

Being told off for working 10-6 and not staying for free late hours. Never getting an opportunity to collaborate with others or even give a suggestion.

Being paid irregular salary depending on the boss's mood.

Being made to do manual work, including cleaning the floors and carrying heavy boxes for a prolonged amount of time (a month or more) instead of doing the actual work you were hired to do.

Bosses coming to you to gossip about other coworkers.

Bosses asking you not to tell your coworkers how much you get paid, when they work longer hours or have more responsibilities and get paid less. (I know someone may say it's a rule. But I don't see it this way. If I see someone get paid more than me because they deserve it, sure. If someone gets paid less than me because they have been bullied into keeping quiet, fuck yes I will speak).

Not getting your holiday leave.

Being guilt-tripped into longer working hours.

Being screamed at on the daily.

Being treated like an imbecile.

And this is the tip of the iceberg. Not all of these happened directly to me, but I was there, and it was a matter of time when bosses' attitude came back, biting me on the ass. I was terrified of going to work because I never knew what mood I will have to deal with or what games I would have to play with my boss. I understand that there are a lot of people with small businesses who care about their business like it's their baby. They want everyone else to be as excited, as involved 24/7 as they are. But only on their own terms, don't get too creative or suggest anything, it's a dictatorship, darling. People want you to take the initiative, but if you do, it is not appreciated. Once I had to delete my own message because my boss did not see it and sent exactly the same one to the client.

This experience has stopped me from applying for jobs for ages. I am absolutely terrified of being stuck somewhere where I will either be bullied or have a huge chance to be bullied. I freelance as a stylist (oh I get shit there too) and write this blog (read why fashion bloggers should be paid scroll to 'Do Not Work For Free), try to set up an upcycling brand, teach dance in the hopes that one day some of it will bring me sufficient enough money. I am also incredibly lucky because I don't have to work part-time or full time compared to people that do. So I do acknowledge my privilege there. And it is also why I think the fashion industry and even dance (that's for another blog post) need to be called out. Because there are people who cannot afford this kind of treatment and need to work as they do not have other means. But will their former employers contribute to their therapy afterwards?

Read another long but brilliant article about the Away luggage company and the former employees' experiences.

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