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Rights and Wrongs
Every year during fashion week there are a handful of news angles eternally recycled in the media: fashion is dead - there are no new ideas; designers are sculpting unwearable clothes - who would wear that?; the latest models are the skinniest/youngest yet - mock horror while throwing up into a bucket; and fashion is an industry of high level bitchery - lets celebrate and look on in awe.
This year a few new angles made it through, including the outing of 'Mercedes Fashion Week' and Australian designers' sponsors (or was it just an advertorial?) and the plight of the low paid workers who stitch so many of the nation's threads together.
Is the fashion world finally waking up to the injustice?
In a sign of the times, a recent letter to the editor published in a high fashion women's magazine pleaded with readers: don't wear cheap knock-offs of designer garments as they devalue the real thing for those splashing out thousands of dollars for a pair of top label pants ... and besides, wearing designer clothes is the only way to ensure sweatshop labour has not been employed to construct them. The assertion was not completely accurate and it was hard to feel pity for the author. But it did hint at a smattering of awareness emerging among the fashion set that those exploiting outworkers and sweatshop labour must no longer be supported.
So does this mean justice and equity are the new black, while sweatshop manufactured garments are the new fur - begging to be saturated with red paint to draw attention to those who leech off impoverished workers?
FairWear NSW spokesperson Despina Karlsson says the situation is closer to the latter, and says the perception that buying top name designer threads guarantees a sweatshop-free garment is a definite myth.
"I think they were afraid of the red paint this year but they are also afraid that abiding by the law will mean they become uncompetitive in this cut throat industry. Particularly when it comes to competing overseas they are afraid that if they don't do everything to keep production costs down they are going to sink."
In order to deal with this many in the industry have attempted to shield themselves by adopting attitudes of "wilful ignorance", she says.
This year FairWear and the NSW Office of Industrial Relations have joined forces to ensure the high end of the fashion world cannot ignore their responsibilities any longer. With new legislation coming into effect on 1 July, retailers will now be faced with a choice: either participate in a voluntary scheme by signing up to the Homeworkers Code of Practice or adhere to the mandatory scheme.
The legislation means retailers must be aware of supply chain and must disclose to the Office of Industrial Relation the location of where the contracts are going. In addition to large retailers such as David Jones and Myers most designers also have retail outlets, so the reach of the legislation is broad.
An information stand at Fashion Week and a fashion parade showcasing designers whose clothes are 'sweat-free' - called the cookUP Collective - have helped spread the word.
FairWear has also spent the last 18 months with some of Australia's top designers, Lisa Ho, Collette Dinnigan, and Arika Isogawa, helping them to get on top of the new requirements.
"The fashion world is starting to realise the cost in terms of image, penalties, and bad publicity and a lot of designers can't afford this," Karlsson says. "And at the same time there is a growing market for sweatshop free goods.
"The whole concept of signing up to anything like this is so alien to the designers. The perception is that after the designs and materials have been handed over it is alien to then be responsible for what happens after.
"Fashion houses might believe they are paying enough to cover the correct workers' 'piece rate' but if they are not allowing for the subcontractor to take their cut there is no guarantee it is getting through to those putting the clothes together."
"We have found an appalling pattern that no matter where an outfit is made it will average $4 an hour in wages. For designer garments if they are lucky they will get $8. But these people should often be getting $30 for the complexity of their work."
Karlsson says the Fashion Week experience was a positive one for FairWear and the challenge of coordinating a sweatshop free parade helped them identify "the gaps" and areas where there is still work to be done. This included footwear, with no shoe designers able to guarantee their products were sweatshop free.
So the footwear fashion du jour on the FairWear catwalks this year? Second hand, recycled, hand-me-downs with a watch-this-space until next year.
For more information about FairWear click http://www.fairwear.org.au/engine.php
To download FairWear's wallet card to find out who in the industry is doing the right thing click http://www.fairwear.org.au/engine.php?SID=1000013
To find out more about the NSW Government's strategy click http://www.industrialrelations.nsw.gov.au/behindthelabel/default.html
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