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REPORT
Why Is It So Hard for Clothing Manufacturers to Pay a Living Wage?
An H&M factory worker in Bangladesh

In the garment industry, stories about workers who barely eke out an existence on “starvation wages” are legion: Factory workers in New Delhi often describe living in makeshift hovels “barely fit for animals.” A young woman from Myanmar might wrestle with the decision to feed her children or send them to school. In Bangladesh, sewing-machine operators frequently toil for 100 hours or more a week, only to run out of money before the end of the month.

Workers have demanded higher pay in all those countries, of course, sometimes precipitating violence between protesters and police. Companies in general, however, have preferred to sidestep the issue altogether. In fact, no multinational brand or retailer currently claims to pay its garment workers a wage they can subsist on.

To be fair, defining a “living wage” can be a tricky business, one that requires some complex mathematics. Even within the same country, the minimum income a worker requires to afford basic needs — food, shelter, clothing, medicine — can vary wildly from one locale to another.

Plus, as brands are wont to remind people, most of them don’t own the factories that produce their clothes, meaning they neither pay for the garment workers’ wages nor determine what those wages are.

So when H&M declared in November 2013 that it would deliver a “fair living wage” to more than 850,000 workers across 750 factories by the end of 2018, the announcement was nothing short of a bombshell.

By 2017, however, H&M’s language regarding its living-wage strategy took a slight turn.

Here’s why it’s so hard for brands to pay well >>
LMAO
Fashion Game Shows I Would Watch
Gameshow contestants

There are a lot of game shows: Jeopardy!, The Price Is Right; technically The Bachelor is a game show, as is Rock Of Love Bus, the bus-centric third season of Rock Of Love. There are not, however, nearly enough fashion game shows. Maybe that’s because no one has ever thought of any good ones. Well, I have, and here they are.

  • Is Your Bag Big Enough To Hold This? is a show where one unfortunate contestant must carry a slightly bigger bag than everyone else, who will then test her patience by constantly asking things like, “Can your bag fit my water bottle?” and “Mind if I throw my wallet in your bag?” The game is over when the woman with the biggest bag snaps and says she’s not a fucking camel, Christine.
  • Statement Necklace is a show in which you and your mom go shopping for fun statement necklaces and talk about what the people you went to high school with are up to now. There are no losers in Statement Necklace. Everyone wins!
  • How Many Blanket Scarves Is Too Many? is a game where contestants must sit in an excessively air conditioned office and pile on enough blanket scarves to keep warm. But if you add so many blanket scarves that you topple over like a human dog bed, you lose!
  • Am I Pulling This Off? is a show in which I wander around the stage in various types of hats and ask the contestants, “Am I pulling this off?” The answer is almost always “no,” but in order to get any points they have to respond with an emphatic “yes!”
More games you'd be really good at, right this way >>
A Look Back
Dressmaking Led Elizabeth Keckley From Slavery to the White House
Warby Parker sunglasses

It’s tempting to describe Elizabeth Keckley’s life as a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale, but to do so diminishes the extraordinary obstacles she faced. Born enslaved in Virginia 200 years ago this February, Keckley’s talents in dressmaking earned her enough money to buy freedom for herself and her son. As a free woman of color, she moved to Washington, D.C., advocated for the formerly enslaved, and started a clothing business that won her the patronage of then-first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. The two women became close friends, but Keckley’s memoir sparked a scandal that severed their relationship and damaged her reputation.

For years, scholars relegated Keckley (also spelled Keckly) to the footnotes of history — one even questioned if she’d existed — but interest in the dressmaker has spiked over the past decade. She’s materialized in playsfictionnonfiction, and the 2012 biopic Lincoln. Now, during the bicentennial of Keckley’s birth, actress Gloria Reuben is developing a project about her, and Oxford University Press has for the first time reprinted a 1942 bookThey Knew Lincoln, that fleshes out her life. The new takes on Keckley suggest that she was unfairly vilified for her memoir and didn’t get the credit she deserved for her contributions to fashion and history alike.

When Reuben got the call to read for the role of Keckley in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, she had just 36 hours to prepare, a daunting task since she knew almost nothing about the dressmaker. That soon changed.

Learn about the woman behind Mary Todd Lincoln's wardrobe >>
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