Written by Daisy Leverington

Voices

Pants: a story of hope

Two years after the tragic collapse of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza, Daisy Leverington visits Who Made Your Pants? – an extraordinary feminist co-operative taking a stand against the exploitation of garment-factory workers.

A woman busy sewing

All photos: Who Made Your Pants?

We’re gathered around a desk in a small meeting room at the headquarters of Who Made Your Pants? in Southampton. Bowls of home-cooked food are swapped and passed around. A teacher from Somalia takes some pearl barley salad. A Social Entrepreneur of the Year award-winner scoops baked beans onto her plate and no one says no to the Madeira cake. I’ve just arrived and wonder if this is a special occasion. Nope. I’m assured that lunchtime is reason enough to down tools and eat together. It feels like I’m a guest at a family mealtime.

Half of these women are refugees. Some arrived in the UK seven years ago, others more recently. Each has their own story as to why they left their home country, and their safety and security are at the heart of this small business.

Around the hubbub and noise of an entirely upcycled office (the lockers hail from a closed-down TV studio; a clothes rail was pedalled into work one day by an exhausted staff member), pants are made. Comfortable, durable, beautiful pants. Every part is hand cut, sewn and finished by the small team. Everyone is paid a fair wage.

The women come from all over the world. Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sudan; everywhere. Some couldn’t speak any English when they arrived, and some still struggle to follow conversational threads over the chatter of the lunch table. Sacdiya was a teacher before she came to the UK, and has been working for WMYP since its inception in 2008. “I like this job,” she tells me. “The boss is kind and good. I feel very safe and happy here.”

“Half of these women are refugees. Each has their own story as to why they left their home country, and their safety and security are at the heart of this small business.”

Sacdiya’s boss, Becky John, is the founder of Who Made Your Pants?. Entrepreneurialism has been a part of her life since childhood. At the age of eight, she ran a sweet shop at Bridgend Rugby Club. By 15 she was an active member of Amnesty International. She made her voice heard at school with organised campaigns for issues close to her heart. But a horrific experience in her late teens left Becky feeling powerless.

Life-changing therapy with Southampton Rape Crisis – along with her natural aptitude for selling and her love of great underwear – proved to be the catalyst for Who Made Your Pants?. “My counselling was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and remains so,” she says. “It’s also the thing I’m proudest of.”

Becky previously worked on an Open University film about sweatshops, which got her thinking about the clothes she was wearing. How could anyone love what they were wearing, and enjoy wearing it, if there was the potential that someone had been exploited or injured in its production?

“[Who Made Your Pants?] is built on the fact that a woman helped me make my life better,” she explains. A passion for human rights campaigning (alongside her experience of business development in the public sector) has ensured that she understands exactly how to empower the people she employs. Becky’s hope is that one day the women who make the pants will take the reins as administrative staff, and that the current co-operative will become an entirely self-sufficient business without a single venture capitalist chipping away at profits.

A sewing machinist at workStaff members are offered training, from English language through to an NVQ Level 2 in Manufacture of Sewn Products. All staff members are also co-opted board members and each has a say in company decisions. If a finance meeting takes a long time to get through with so many languages to navigate, then so be it. It’s a partnership from the cutting table to the sewing machines to the bank.

I ask Becky if such a system could realistically ever be introduced into the sweatshops of Bangladesh. “There is robust economic evidence that when people own their own businesses, the businesses do well. I wouldn’t be surprised if performance and productivity went up,” she explains, adding that her real hope would be to hear fewer stories of women being beaten with sticks by their male bosses.

We wander around the small, unassuming premises that are home to Who Made Your Pants?. Rolls of gorgeous end-of-line and reclaimed fabric line the walls of the cutting room; cotton bobbins form a rainbow of trim along the shelves. There is a low hum of sewing machines and an occasional hoot of laughter from the packing room. It’s a world away from the practical and ethical realities of the places in which most of our pants are produced (see http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2014/apr/bangladesh-shirt-on-your-back).

“How could anyone love what they were wearing, and enjoy wearing it, if there was the potential that someone had been exploited or injured in its production?”

UK retailers such as Benetton, Mango, Monsoon and Primark all rented premises based in the Rana Plaza, the eight-storey garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in 2013 (see below). Most – but not all – have expressed huge distress and regret at their involvement, and donated large sums of money towards the relief effort in the immediate aftermath. I asked Becky why Who Made Your Pants? is considered an ‘ethical’ supplier.

“We sell direct to the consumer. We have a real relationship with our customers. We’ve had handwritten notes from Australia and photos of our pants under wedding dresses,’’ she replies. It’s this personal relationship that sets them apart. “Most companies don’t own a factory, and there are a series of middlemen along the way,” she adds. “We can legitimately and truthfully say we don’t engage with sweatshops.” The company works with complete transparency: no one is in the dark as to where their purchases come from.

So besides the brilliant work of this small company, which shops can we trust to buy our clothes from? It’s not as simple as that. Becky assures me that she knows everyone has different budgets (her pants cost about £18 a pair) and that we have busy lives. Sometimes five pairs of pants for £2.50 is the best we can do. I know it’s often the most I can afford; Becky says she is, “genuinely of a mind that people want to make good choices.”

There are several websites that offer advice and comparisons between high street shops to give buyers an idea where their clothes come from, and which shops offer the most ethical products. Ethical Consumer (http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/) offers guides to rank coffee shops, restaurants and fast food outlets, clothing and footwear. They expose who avoids tax and whose menu is the most sustainable. They also link to alternative clothing sites that can trace their products to their source. Becky says that with every best intention it is still almost impossible to shop entirely ethically, as the distance between us and the factories will always leave room for outsourcing and middlemen, and unregulated practices.

Pants with the Who Made Your Pants? labelWho Made Your Pants? offers us a way to track our clothes. To buy direct from people who are paid fairly and treated well. There are no children being forced to work here. No one is abused or injured while making you a pair of socks. These pants are made honestly and made well. They’re not ‘sexy’ or intended to make you ‘beach body ready’; they just fit well and look brilliant. (I bought some; they’re comfy and make my bum look like a 1970s disco.) They aren’t cheap, but they are wonderfully cheerful.

The company is constantly gaining momentum, and a recent ‘pay what you can’ day was such a success that they were utterly swamped by 2pm. While these products cost more, they are an easy way to support women who work incredibly hard. And there’s no doubt that this is the way a lot of us want to shop.

With the news that the owner of the Rana Plaza complex, Sohel Rana, is among 42 people charged with murder over the building’s collapse in 2013, Daisy Leverington reports on the disaster, a tragedy that exposed the shocking conditions endured by those toiling to make cheap garments for high-street brands.

On April 24, 2013 the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,134 staff and injuring thousands of others. Packed with heavy machinery and with two unplanned extra floors added, the factory was beginning to crack the day before it fell down.

It’s claimed that frightened workers who refused to enter the building were subject to threats and intimidation by their bosses. Some were told they would lose a month’s pay and there were no unions to call on to implement safety checks or protect wages. Even two years on, only 10% of factories have any kind of union to speak of, and those have been created through a fog of death threats and veiled promises of retribution.

At 9am Rana Plaza simply fell down, crushing mothers who had dropped their children in the creche on the lower floors. Crushing the children playing below. Killing men who had families to feed. Killing children working illegally on the production floors. Almost 100 people’s DNA has never been recovered from the site. They are simply gone.

@daisyjoy

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Written by Daisy Leverington

Daisy Leverington - Actor, mother, expert at winging it.