Feminism, teeshirts, and PR disasters

I’d been planning to write something quick in response to an article that Gaby Hinsliff wrote for The Guardian. It was a very fair piece on feminism barring one or two quibbles, which I had wanted to contest.  However, then the Mail on Sunday splashed across their front page the revelation that the teeshirts in question are made in a factory in Mauritius and by workers who are paid 62p per hour. At that point, something of a frenzy erupted.

Let’s deal with the Gaby Hinsliff piece quickly, then, before we get down to the serious business of Mail moral outrage. Gaby says:

“A year after finally conceding to Channel 4 News that if feminism is indeed about women’s rights (who knew?) then “yes, I’m a feminist”, the prime minister has once again stumbled over the F-word. Unlike Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, he weaseled out of donning a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt for Elle magazine, and thus neatly divided opinion between people who were cross that he wouldn’t wear it and people who would have been crosser if he had.”

I don’t think all women themselves are clear about what feminism is, having followed the “radfem” and cis/trans wars with some bemusement. Some women are more women than others, say some women. I think it’s a less ambiguous position to simply say that one is in favour of promoting equality regardless of the gender construct involved.

“Men in public life, meanwhile, are increasingly unsure whether it’s worse to embrace feminism (hypocritical bastard!) or avoid it (sexist pig!), and conclude that the safest option is to stay out of it. I once asked William Hague, in an interview where he’d talked frankly about the systematic use of rape as a weapon of warfare, if he considered himself a feminist: his first instinct was to ask his female adviser whether men were allowed to use the word. My guess is Cameron feels something similar, rather than suffering from austerity-related pangs of conscience.”

The appropriation of “other peoples’ slogans” is something I am wary of, and that applies in this case too. Hinsliff is more generous here than further up the piece when she talks about Cameron “weaseling out” of wearing the teeshirt.

“There is such a thing as rightwing feminism (there has been for centuries) and while it often disagrees with its liberal sisters on the means – Tory feminists are big on empowering individual women to rise, rather weaker on analysing the factors that collectively keep women down – it shares the same ends and many of the same priorities.”

This is a variation of the Thatcher resignation speech wavy-hand gestures “Do you want a bit more equality down at that level or a bit less up at this one?” issue.

“Obviously, you might argue that Tory feminists are wrong, or complacent, or wilfully blind; but it doesn’t follow that they are, de facto, not feminists. And to say otherwise is to undermine everything that T-shirt stood for when it was first launched by the Fawcett Society eight years ago – which was that this is a game anyone can play as long as they believe men and women to be equals; that there isn’t a uniform, or an entrance exam, or a million tiny unwritten rules that you should be afraid of breaking.”

Quite. Another thing that has become rather unclear is who exactly is (or was, since it has descended into farce) benefitting from this PR stunt. Elle magazine are running a feminism issue for December (already on sale now) and are calling it “our feminist tee” in their headline – not “the Fawcett Society’s feminist tee”. The tone of the coverage throughout the magazine (or at least as one navigates it through the disaster of their website) is a bit “Fawcett Society invented the slogan, we made the teeshirt”. I think they are claiming rather more credit than they are due. I remember seeing Bill Bailey in one years ago and thinking I would never look as cool as he did in one, puffing on his pipe.  But it isn’t the PM’s job to help Hearst Magazines sell copies of Elle. The reaction I’ve seen on social media has been almost entirely about “Elle’s teeshirt”, which is a handsome win for them, but it doesn’t directly say anything about feminism.

But these are minor quibbles, and it was a good piece. More murky is impact of the Mail on Sunday splash. The main Mauritius government website – www.gov.mu – seems to be down at the moment, so the most recent available figures I’ve found elsewhere relate to 2011. You can download the 2011 Digest of Labour Statistics yourself if you like, if you go to the “Labour” tab and select the Digest but I will extract the relevant bits here. Those pages of pdf lay out the average hourly wage (in Mauritian Rupees – there are about 50 to the Pound).

The Mauritian government sets minimum wages by industrial sector, and seems to use them to manipulate the labour market in an unsubtle manner. It is clear from the extracted figures that despite being a fairly skilled job, machinists in garment factories are well below the level in other trades of a comparable kind. The Mail’s claim about “62p per hour” is borne out. However, as textile and clothing exports account for half of Mauritius’ export earnings, it starts to become clear why the sector is manipulated in this way.

We are often reminded by the likes of Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman that a minimum wage in the UK is not a “living wage”. So why should things be any more different in Mauritius? Is it acceptable to use factories in countries where factory workers are deliberately kept poor in order to protect exports? Is it acceptable for a government to manipulate the minimum wage by sector? Add in the observation that well over a third of the workers in those factories are imported labour, and a picture builds up which is pretty ugly for Ed and Harriet. Look also at the average length of a working week – nearly 49 hours including overtime.

The response of the Fawcett Society to the Mail story has been a bit confused. It makes clear that Elle were on the lookout for a good cause they could hook up with to push their December issue. It is also clear that Fawcett were expecting the teeshirts to be UK made, and not in Mauritius. The defence that CMT are Oeko-Tex accredited testifies only to the quality of the finished garments for the “Standard 100” level of accreditation they hold, and has nothing at all to do with ethical factories or workplace conditions.

Jane Sheperdson of Whistles expressed concern early on in the disposable fast-fashion revolution that ethical standards in many third-world garment factories are non-existent. She used to work as brand director of Topshop for Sir Philip Green, one of whose suppliers was attacked by an international trade union organisation over low pay, poor conditions, and abuse of foreign workers. That supplier was CMT. The same union organisation has spoken to the Mail on Sunday saying that things are no better in 2014.

What puzzles me a bit is why Shepherdson, who has a record of collaboration the fair-trade retailer People Tree, amongst others, went with a bog-standard Whistles supplier rather than someone with a more solid reputation as an ethical manufacturer. It should be possible to source it from a top-quality ethical supplier and still make a decent markup at a top-end £45 retail price. Instead, they ended up with CMT and a whole load of media embarrassment.

The entire episode is a sorry muddle. We have the Left caught out complaining about Cameron dodging feminism, while they have all been posing for the cameras in teeshirts made in factories almost certainly paying below a “living wage”; we have a magazine hijacking a long-standing and excellent campaign for womens’ equality; we have the poor old Fawcett Society caught up in a sourcing scandal in an area no reasonable person would expect them to understand; and we have the Mail giving it both barrels of moral outrage even though that isn’t the worst garment factory on the face of the Earth. Hardly anyone can say they aren’t complicit in the Third World fashion trade. I’m wearing jeans from Turkey and a teeshirt from Bangladesh.

There has yet been no comment from Miliband or Harman on the story. When they do respond, I wonder whether I’ll be reading anything about “living wage”, “poverty pay”, “predatory capitalism”, and “migrant workers”, all things Labour have been vocal about in the past when other people, like Sir Philip Green, have been in bother. When it comes to sourcing scandals Labour’s leadership too can now say “Been there, done that, got the teeshirt”.

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