The True Cost of Our Cheap Clothing: A Feminist Issue

This article is the second in the series “The True Cost of Our Cheap Clothing”, which explores the exploitative world of the fast fashion industry within our very home: Thailand. Uncovering why fast fashion is a feminist issue, the topics of gender inequality, occupational segregation, and gender pay gap are explored within this article, all the while shedding light on the abuse women within the Thai garment industry are forced to endure.

In 2008, 76 percent of all domestic exported garments went to the U.S. and the EU; a prime example of rich nations exploiting workers from poorer countries to reduce the cost of the garment production process, while selling the clothes for triple the production cost to maximize profit (“Thai Textile and Apparel Industry.”). Even so, the clothes are still dirt cheap because neither the consumers nor the companies are paying the price; the backbone of the fashion industry, the garment workers themselves, are the ones who are paying the full price. However, due to the domestic lack of purchasing power, the demand for the produced garments is low, so, naturally, Thailand is highly dependent on garment exports (Stotz).

In Thailand, 60,000 people are directly involved in the production of textiles, and 100,000 people perform assisting tasks such as spinning, knitting, dying, etc. Meanwhile 850,000 people, consisting mainly of migrant workers, are producing ready-made garments (Stotz). Since the majority of garment workers are women, they are more prone to maltreatment than male workers.

The most vulnerable group of all, however, are children trapped in labor, the majority of whom are female. Officially, the minimum age for employment in Thailand is 15 years of age. Despite this, many Thai garment factories illegally employ children under the aforementioned age due to the demand for cheap labor. As much as 8 percent of all garment workers in Thailand are between the ages of 5-14  (“Child Labor and Forced Labor Reports.”). This is a critical issue because the large number of children partaking in garment production in Thailand signifies the lack of education, as work hinders their school attendance. Since most of the child workers are girls, less girls are being educated, thus limiting their future job possibilities and exacerbating the domestic occupational segregation.

The Labor Protection Act of Thailand stipulates that the boss has the power to determine the wage, though the minimum wage of 300 Baht per day has to be respected (Labour Protection Act of 1998). Regardless, the majority of garment workers often receive less than the minimum wage with female workers being paid far less than their male counterparts, despite being entitled to the same wage (Stotz). This is because of the inveterate belief that women should be paid less than men, enforcing the gender pay gap which is caused by occupational segregation.

Not only are women paid less, they also suffer from a range of abuses while employed at garment factories, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse and discriminatory abuse. The reasoning behind the abuse often revolves around pregnancy issues, despite laws being put in place to protect pregnant women against mistreatment. In reality, pregnant workers are often forced to work overtime six days a week. Many are forced to work until two a.m. or even until dawn (Yimprasert). When questioned by authorities during check-ups, they are forced to say that they do not work overtime. If workers do not comply, their wages are deducted or worse are fired (Yimprasert). Considering how little they already receive, no one is willing to risk it as many are the sole breadwinners of their household.

Female workers often fear for their safety at work, which is exacerbated by their excessive overtime, forcing them to work long hours until late at night. Though more than 36 hours of overtime a week is prohibited by the Labour Protection Act, during peak season, excessive overtime is common because factory owners are unwilling to spend more money in hiring additional workers (Labour Protection Act of 1998). Hence, many experience domestic abuse as a result. A female garment worker stated, “I was afraid of being raped when I had to go home late. My husband would scold me when I returned home, he said ‘what have you been doing until one a.m., two a.m., three a.m.?’ If we cannot finish the work, the employers and their friends would not let me go back home.” She continued to say how, due to her returning late from work, “my husband likes to scold me and he beats me up one or two times” (Yimprasert).

The following are examples of workers’ testimonies on working conditions in a Bed & Bath factory, a company which produced garments for popular western brands such as Nike, Adidas and Harley-Davidson:

“We sometimes work non-stop for three days and three nights. We are very exhausted but we have to do it because we are forced to do so. If we refused to work, our wages would be deducted” (Yimprasert).

“My friend is pregnant, when the employer found out he was angry with her, he yelled at her saying, ‘You didn’t even have enough to eat, how dare you get pregnant!’ Another case was when my friend’s child was sick, so she wanted to take leave to take her child to the hospital. He said, ‘Will your child die if you do not take him to the hospital? I won’t let you go. Finish your work!’” (Yimprasert).

The workers at Bed & Bath always worked overtime, sometimes until after midnight. However, more horrific is the fact that their employers would mix methamphetamines into their drinking water in order to keep them awake and working (Yimprasert). These issues are common within garment factories throughout Thailand, but are left unspoken due to the workers’ fear of being fired or harmed. This case is fortunate enough to be publicized because, in 2002, the Bed & Bath workers were forced to fight for their rights after their bosses had run away without leaving them any compensation (Yimprasert).

Apparent in the abuse and discrimination women undergo when performing their jobs in garment factories, fast fashion is a feminist issue. To enable better lives for women working in the garment industry, advocate for better treatment of men towards women and advocate for equal pay: basic human rights which need not require anything additional to common sense. Hold these atrocious people accountable for their actions. Being a feminist means saying no to fast fashion.

To read other articles in the “The True Cost of Cheap Clothing” series, as well as articles on other domestic sustainability, ethical, social and cultural issues, subscribe to KIS Today to get the latest articles sent straight to your email!

Works Cited

“Child Labor and Forced Labor Reports.” United States Department of Labor, http://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/thailand. 

Labour Protection Act of 1998, NATLEX. 

Stotz, Lina. “Facts on Thailand’s Garment Industry.” Clean Clothes Campaign. 

“Thai Textile and Apparel Industry.” Thai Trade Center USA, 2010, http://www.thaitradeusa.com/home/?page_id=2081. 

Yimprasert, Junya. “When Cats Become Tigresses in Thailand .” Thai Labour Campaign and IGTN Asia. 

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