Sweatshop Workers in Bangladesh on Strike, Tired of Making Unfashionable Clothes

Dhaka, Bangladesh; Chanting the slogan “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! Ugly Clothes Have Got to Go!” into the hot humid air, sweatshop workers at factories outsourced by Lane Bryant, Eddie Bauer, and Wal Mart went on strike today after declaring that they are tired of making “frumpy, ill-fitting, pastel colored, unfashionable clothes.” Over 2,000 workers from four different textile factories located in downtown Dhaka are participating in the indefinite strike, which began early this morning.

“If we are going to be paid $1 a day by these factories and work in subhuman conditions, the least they can do is give us attractive, modern, fashionable clothes to manufacture,” argued Manesh Bhattacharya, leader of the newly formed Ugly Textile Workers Union of Bangladesh (UTWUB), “Is a vintage-styled red and white Adidas track suit with matching visor too much to ask for?”

Another female worker spoke of the shame associated with producing such undesirable clothes. “All of my friends, they work for high fashion companies like Bebe, Banana Republic, and Abercrombie and Fitch. They always make fun of me, asking why I sew such big big underwear for WalMart, as if I designed them myself!”

The strike comes at the end of an ongoing two year worker driven campaign. In the past years, the UTWUB has tried various tactics to try change the ugly clothes policy, including non-violent sit-ins, large scale rallies, and transnational consumer boycotts. None of the actions seemed to work, leaving the workers no other option, in their opinion, but to go on strike. “We have tried everything, from petitions, to town meetings, to protests,” cried Bhattacharya, “We are poor people but we must work with dignity. Even we would not wear a purple fleece vest with pleated tapered khakis and Velcro sandals.”

In response to the announcement of the strike, the three companies issued a joint statement in which they appeared unwilling to budge on this issue. The companies said that while they “are hurt that workers find their clothes unappealing” they will do nothing to change the policy because “there appears to be a large market for so-called ‘ugly’ clothes.”

Nellie McRoy, vice-president of Lane Byrant, a plus size women’s clothing store, seemed somewhat irritated by the news of strike. In a phone interview, she angrily stated that “it is not up to the workers to decide what fashion is, that’s not how capitalism and free markets work. We leave it up to our hundreds of thousands of, in my opinion, well-dressed consumers to decide what is and is not ugly.”

Labor studies have shown that while workers who make ugly clothes earn wages and work in conditions that are equal to those worker who make fashionable clothes, ugly clothes workers are ten times more likely to quit their job or engage in social protest. Labor analysts attribute this trend to the “Guilty By Association” factor. Keith Johnson, a professor of labor psychology at San Francisco State, argues that the anger these workers feel has little to do with the aesthetics of the clothes they produce but rather, has everything to do with the types of people who wear the clothes they work so hard to make. “Psychologically, workers tend to associate themselves with the people who purchase the clothes they produce,” explained Professor Johnson, “Workers who make fashionable clothes generally enjoy being associated with the rich, famous, and good looking whereas most ugly clothes workers are discontent being associated with chubby citizens of the first world who have bad taste. One could argue that if George Clooney regularly wore lemon-yellow turtlenecks from Eddie Bauer, these striking workers would be ecstatic about their jobs.”

Consumer opinion seemed somewhat divided on this issue, with some consumers supporting the right of workers to make clothes they are proud of and others arguing that workers should just work, and leave the fashion divining up to the first world. “What the heck do those people know about fashion?,” cried out Steven Laterby, a middle-aged tire salesman, “They’d wear a potato sack to Thanksgiving dinner if they could!”

Others showed more sympathy for the workers. Tiffany Smith, a high school cheerleader, sneered at the thought of making clothes for Eddie Bauer, Lane Bryant, and Wal-Mart. “Oh my gosh, eeeeeewwwwww! I would rather die than make those UG clothes! Yeah, I would totally rather die.”

Student at University of Wisconsin, Madison held a solidarity rally for the striking workers on their campus. Jennie Mayer, co-coordinator of Students for Dignity at Work, said that they organized this rally to pressure the UW administration to divest from Eddie Bauer and to educate the campus on the needs of sweatshop workers. “I hear so many economists say ‘people in third world countries are just so happy to have a job that they don’t care WHAT they are doing’ but this UTWUB strike really challenges that reasoning,” argued Mayer, “This strike says that sweatshop workers want to be proud of their work and that they want to express themselves. Just like an impressionist painter, these workers would rather starve than be forced to work against their artistic impulses.” She then added, “The only impulse I have when I see black stirrup leggings at Lane Byrant is to vomit.”

Other workers’ unions have announced their support of the UTWUB, including the Singing Plastic Fish Workers of South Asia and the Bangladeshi Garden Gnome Association.