No Sweat told Phoenix Media Co-op that it began in 2000 “as a way to bring the trade union movement and the anti-globalisation movement of the time together in fighting against neoliberal policies that had brought about the situation of sweatshops across the Global South”. It continued:
We looked to the trade union movements of developing countries and decided the best way to make positive change was to build solidarity with them, asking them what they needed from us and creating campaigns to raise awareness of their struggles.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century we organised protests outside the flagship stores of the major brands such as Nike and Gap to highlight the oppression of workers making their clothes, we arranged speaker tours of trade unionists and striking workers from countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Haiti, and organised fundraising events to help these unions build their movements.
No Sweat has always been a grassroots campaign group, a way for individuals in the UK to raise their voice against the injustice of sweatshop conditions and build common cause with workers around the world. The anti-globalisation movements of the early 2000s highlighted the problems of modern capitalism, the offshoring of jobs in the West, leaving the working classes here jobless so that large corporations could benefit from low wages and workplaces with little in the way of regulations on health and safety, resulting in massive profits.
Remember Rana Plaza, Bangladesh
Since 2017, No Sweat has been working with a factory in Bangladesh that is owned by its workers. And it was some survivors from the infamous Rana Plaza disaster who set this up. As No Sweat explained:
In 2013, a multistory building in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, that hosted a number of garment factories collapsed, killing over a thousand people. This was a turning point for the garment industry. It was not just the worst garment industry disaster in history; it was one of the worst industrial accidents in history. In the rubble, labels were found on clothing that was being produced for many well known Western brands. The building was called Rana Plaza and that name has become synonymous with exploitation in the garment industry.
It also stressed:
Over the past few decades the industry has done its best to create a self-governing auditing system that was intended to tackle exploitation and dangerous conditions in the garment industry. Auditing factories for brands based on the brands’ own Codes of Conduct became an industry in itself with numerous auditing firms set up to take on the work. Rana Plaza was audited just days before it collapsed.
The reason why this auditing failed was simply that the auditors were working to meet criteria set by the brands and not look at structural failures, both figuratively and literally. The cracks in the walls reported by workers were ignored by the factory bosses fearing a loss of income if work was interrupted. Rana Plaza was an avoidable tragedy, but the system that brands had created to deal with the systemic problems in their supply chains was simply not fit for purpose and the end result was an enormous loss of human life.
What is ‘ethical fashion’?
No Sweat added that for fashion to be truly ethical, workers’ rights need to be at the very centre, saying:
Since No Sweat was formed there has been a growth in the term ‘ethical fashion’; and since Rana Plaza, it has become so commonplace as a term, along with the term ‘sustainability’, that in 2015 we started to question the reality. A little research, scratching beneath the surface of claims by companies at being ethical showed the reality was far from what most people would consider truly ethical or sustainable. For the biggest companies, it has become an exercise in greenwashing, presenting themselves to the world as decent corporate global citizens that care about people and planet whist perpetuating the same sweatshop conditions that have existed for decades now. Many smaller companies have emerged with the ‘start-up boom’, but there too we have seen that much of the focus has been on the environment rather than workers’ rights.
While protecting the environment is important, and organic products are certainly the way forward, we saw a lot of companies talking about workers in paternalistic ways – photos of men in fields of cotton with tag lines saying things like ‘we care about our workers’ were common. But what was missing was any mention of trade unions, collective bargaining agreements, or workers’ committees that monitored health and safety in the workplace. These are the things that make a factory ethical, not the feel-good platitudes of a brand.
Partnering with workers in Bangladesh
No Sweat then spoke more about its partnership:
So in 2017, we partnered with a worker-owned factory in Bangladesh that was set up by some of the survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster to start making a T-shirt that could put a focus on workers’ rights and give an example of how things should be done. The factory – called ‘Oporajeo’, which means ‘Invincible’ in Bengali – has a collective bargaining agreement in place, the workers earn a living wage and receive a share of the company’s profits, and an elected worker representative sits on the board of directors. They have in-work benefits such as a provident-fund, a healthcare fund, and support with their children’s education costs – all things that help make their wage go that much further to provide them with a decent life.
This is what it means to be ethical, and the fact that all the T-shirts are organic and the factory is carbon-neutral means environmental sustainability is a factor too. But most importantly of all, the T-shirts we make with Oporajeo are not-for-profit, which means we put the profits back into our campaign work and into our Garment Worker Solidarity Fund that we are building up to provide financial support for workers still in the sweatshop system that want to take industrial action to fight for their rights.
On Saturday 24 April, it will be the 8-year anniversary of the disaster at Rana Plaza. And No Sweat said:
While we look back and remember those that lost their lives and those that had their lives changed forever, we are also looking forward to how we can continue to challenge the brands to ensure decent wages and conditions for workers in the factories making their clothes. In this we have set up a series of events.
On Saturday 24th we have an interview with some of the workers at Oporajeo with journalist Frankie Leach talking about how Oporajeo was born, thinking back to the Rana Plaza disaster and forward to their plans for the future. On the 25th we have a Q&A event with Rubiyat Hossain, the director of a film called Made in Bangladesh, which is a feature film about a young garment worker and her attempts to unionise her factory – based on a real-life story. Then, on Tuesday 27th, we are hosting a panel event with academics, activists and workers about the accreditation industry, where it has failed and what needs to be done to change it so that workers are protected in the future like they should have been on that fateful day 8 years ago.
The interview with Oporajeo and the panel event will be livestreamed on our social media channels and the film event is on Zoom. Tickets are still available from Eventbrite and on buying a ticket you will receive a link to watch the film online in your own time before the Q&A on Sunday.