Women workers protesting low wages and harassment they face at work, during May Day protests in 2019 via The Wire
Recently, H&M announced a collaboration with Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee was on its way, and South Asian Twitter was all over it.
Understandably so. As one of the most acclaimed designers in India, Sabyasachi is known for staying true to Desi culture. In his own words, his designs are “not just about Indians in India, but the Indian diaspora who thrive on nostalgia for their motherland.” He isn’t wrong there. As a third-generation Bengali living in the UK, I remember discovering Sabyasachi on Instagram as a teenager, in awe at the intricateness, the elegance, the defiance against western influence, and the celebration of tradition.
I completely understand why people would celebrate Sabyasachi entering the mainstream, increasing accessibility to his designs and bringing Indian culture to the world. However, I can’t help but address the contradiction between H&Ms desire to celebrate Indian culture, proclaiming the collection will incorporate ‘India’s rich textile, craft and history…’, while simultaneously depending on the systematic exploitation of its Indian workforce to extract profits.
The poor working conditions of H&M’s garment workers in India have been well-documented. For example, in a report by Global Labor Justice, women working in factories supplying H&M were found largely concentrated in low-skill, short term, low-wage jobs, making them vulnerable to gender-based violence and harassment. In Bangalore, women reported receiving physical abuse when they couldn’t meet their production targets, as one worker described being thrown to the floor and beaten, including on her breasts, for not meeting her target.
In addition, Worker Rights Consortium investigated a violent campaign against workers at a H&M supplier factory operated by Shahi Exports in Bangalore. This was after workers attempted to organise with the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU), petitioning for better working conditions, including higher wages and better drinking water. They were subjected to severe repression by management, including physical beatings, sexual abuse, death threats, and gender, caste and religion-based abuse. One worker recalled being told, “It won’t be a sin if people kill you and get rid of you”, among other threats, and was then beaten, nearly strangled, and hospitalised overnight.
Workers protesting at Shahi Exports via News Click
While in no way excusing the indefensible brutality of the management in these factories, research highlights the link between pressure brands such as H&M put on factories to meet targets, and the abuse workers are subjected to.
Under capitalism, brands compete against one another for profit – one pivotal way to do this is to lower production costs. This has resulted in an ongoing race to the bottom, as brands demand suppliers produce clothes at lower and lower prices. Due to the ease at which brands can cut ties and transfer production elsewhere, largely a result of neoliberal policies imposed by Western institutions on countries across the Global South, suppliers are pitted against each other, compelling them to lower costs in order to meet the demands of brands, or face losing business. With economies dependent on exporting manufactured produce, again the result of Western institutions manipulating the economies of the Global South, industries in these countries are left with little option but to accept the inhumane expectations of Western multinational corporations.
The cost-cutting practices of brands was addressed in a study by Human Rights Watch, which found brands using various tactics to drive down prices, while pushing for fast production. This in turn is argued to encourage abusive methods of reducing costs by suppliers. One Indian supplier explained how brands, “do badmashi (play dirty),” when it came to lead times, the time given to factories to produce clothing, explaining how delays left him with just 15 days to meet targets, “when I can’t meet the deadline, they start to say ‘late delivery’ and demand discounts”.
In fact, Mark Anner recently conducted research , showing that the price paid by brands to Indian factories for clothing exported to the United States fell by 63% between 1994 and 2017, while lead times reduced by 10%. Additionally, 39% of factory owners indicated they had accepted at least one order below the cost of production, giving little space for suppliers to invest in working conditions and wages. Unsurprisingly, work intensity has increased, with production targets going from daily targets to hourly targets, and workers referring to ‘production targets’ as ‘production torture’.
“when I can’t meet the deadline, they start to say ‘late delivery’ and demand discounts”
Seeing ‘Sabyasachi Calcutta’ proudly emboldened in H&M’s video teaser for the collection, I reflect not only on H&M’s complete disregard of its Indian female workforce, while portraying itself as a keen advocate for India’s culture, but also how textile in India has maintained a pivotal tool for Western imperialism.
The Bengal was once world-renowned for its successful textile industry, but this came to a brutal end when Britain colonised India. Britain systematically destroyed the industry, so it couldn’t compete with Britain’s textile manufacturing. Through the imposition of high tariffs, cutting of trade links, and the physical destruction of weaver’s looms, the British, controlled and manipulated the Indian industry so it could ensure profits for the empire. Now, we see multinational corporations from the West utilising their power to control Indian suppliers and ensure its subservience to production for Western profit. Multinational corporations are agents of neo-colonialism.
British cotton mill via National Interest
To clarify, this whole mess is not the fault of the average South Asian who likes Sabyasachi designs. I merely want to clarify that H&M does not care about people of colour, nor their culture. Stunts like these are a means of ticking the ‘diversity’ box to make profit, distracting us from their business model that depends on the systematic exploitation of women workers in India, and broadly across the Global South.
At the end of the day, representation is nothing but a façade to distract us from empowerment beyond seeing an elephant print dress in the mainstream, or a brown person in a photoshoot. Actual empowerment is speaking out and fighting against the exploitative fashion industry, a tool of neo-colonial control, that continues to dictate the lives of workers in the Global South.
Our silence is deafening.