Dhaka Savar building collapse in Rana Plaza. Photo courtesy of Rijans/Flickr.
In late November, social media widely circulated a Gap ad featuring Sikh American designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia after the company’s rapid response to racist graffiti scribbled over it in a New York subway station.
After all the attention faded, I found myself thinking about the whole motive behind the ad.
While Gap has received much attention and praise over the past few months for its conduct around this specific advertising campaign, the company, along with several other clothing manufacturers, has become embroiled in a series of controversies involving labor conditions in garment factories in Bangladesh.
Gap’s inclusion of a Sikh South Asian American man in the company’s winter marketing campaign comes at a time when the company faces massive global criticism for its labor practices, especially in Bangladesh. By drawing our attention toward a single advertisement, Gap has brownwashed their own labor practices, obscuring the brown people and places from where their clothing originates.
A series of deadly incidents, including the Rana Plaza building collapse in April, which killed over a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh, sparked global concern over weak safety standards in the country’s $22-billion garment industry.
In May 2013, Gap and other U.S.-based retailers declined to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a binding safety agreement led mostly by labor unions and European apparel corporations.
Over the past few months, U.S. clothing makers pressured the Senate to remove a provision in this year’s military spending bill that would have given preferential treatment to clothing suppliers on U.S.-military bases that sign the accord.
If the provision passed, Congress would have not only endorsed an accord that U.S.-clothing manufacturers have opposed, but also pressured them to consider joining the accord or lose business on military bases.
In a November letter sent by associations representing American retailers to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, the clothing lobby claimed that the amendment gave preferential treatment to European companies.
“The amendments would in effect give a preference to European companies over American companies, even though American companies have demonstrated the same commitment to improving worker safety in Bangladesh,” the letter stated. “Congress should embrace all meaningful efforts to improve worker safety in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Members of the alliance responded to the claim, calling it “simplistic and inaccurate.”
Gap was the most outspoken in opposition to the binding safety agreement in Bangladesh, reports the New York Times:
“By far, Gap has been the most vocal company opposed to the plan, expressing concerns that overzealous American lawyers could seize on the agreement to sue American companies on behalf of aggrieved factory workers in Bangladesh–perhaps in the event of a factory fire. Gap said it supported much of the plan, but it proposed changes that would greatly limit any legal liability for a company that violated the plan.”
In the North American pact, companies may opt out at any time while in the European one the accord is legally binding. Gap and other retailers have pledged to pay $42 million for inspection and worker safety, but have not pledged to cover all improvements in about 500 factories within a year. The European pact contains language to tie companies to pay for whatever renovations and other safety upgrades are required in their 1200 factories within nine months.
The Gap and Walmart-led pact has been roundly criticized by several labor advocates.
“The kind of voluntary initiative being put forward by Walmart and Gap,” said Jyrka Rani, general secretary for IndustriALL Global Union, an umbrella of unions with 50 million members around the world, “has failed in the past and will again fail to protect Bangladeshi garment workers.”
The AFL-CIO, one of the largest labor unions in the United States released a statement on Gap’s separate proposal. “No amount of bipartisan window dressing,” they claimed, “can change the fact that Walmart and the Gap have refused to take this important step. This is a matter of life or death. Quite simply, nonbinding is just not good enough.”
In November 2013, Al Jazeera dedicated a whole program to investigating sweatshops full of children in Bangladesh that produced clothes for Walmart and Gap’s subsidiary Old Navy. One of the most striking scenes in the short documentary includes a 12-year-old Bangladeshi girl placing elastic into a pair of jeans with an Old Navy label and barcode.
Gap has since responded to the Al Jazeera program, accepting and denying various aspects of the corporation’s ties to the particular sweatshop in question.
Then on November 29, 2013 garment workers set fire to their factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh over rumors of a fellow worker’s death due to police fire. At the scene, a photographer found burnt garments on the floor with labels from Gap, Wal-Mart, and other large retailers. Reuters quoted Nur-e-Alam, a senior manager at the factory as saying: “We were the biggest supplier of Gap in Bangladesh. Our cargoes were ready for shipment and all that was burnt up.”
Recently, the U.S. government has stepped in to push Gap and other companies to demand and provide better working conditions for their factories in the developing world.
The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, widely regarded as the organization that galvanized the late 20th-century anti-sweatshop movement in the United States, released a report this past October titled “Gap and Old Navy: Creating the Poorest Workers in the World.”
According to the 68-page report, the 3,750 workers at the Next Collections Limited factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh are “routinely forced to work over 100 hours a week, while being shortchanged of their legal wages–which are already well below subsistence levels.”
The report goes on to state that 1200 “finishing section” workers at a specific Old Navy factory must work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. These workers make between 20 and 24 cents an hour. During Ramadan, these workers were given an hour and a half off to break the fast and then continued working sometimes until 3 a.m.
Much of the rest of the report is devoted to female workers advocating for maternity leave and being fired as a result of either their pregnancy or advocacy.
The advertisement featuring Ahluwalia gained notoriety in aftermath of Gap’s response to racist graffiti found on the ad in New York City. Many Muslim and South Asian Americans praised Gap for its commitment to multiculturalism and diversity in its advertising as well as the company’s responsiveness to calls from social media users.
While it is a significant step forward when a turbaned brown man is highlighted in a major company’s advertising campaign, the wool is still being pulled over our eyes. South Asian and Muslim Americans who could be at the forefront of the battle for improved working conditions in Bangladesh, the fourth largest Muslim nation in the world, have instead bought into an advertising campaign that features one turbaned South Asian man.
Sikh blogger Jaspreet Kaur had similar feelings on Gap’s advertising campaign in a piece titled “Making money, not love:”
“The make love campaign produced a beautiful image of a Sikh man in mainstream media that is positive and thought provoking. Their response to vandalism of this image has been immediate, compassionate and kind. However, a kind marketing branch of a human rights violating corporation is, simply put, nice capitalism.”
With this ad campaign, Gap has attempted to brownwash criticism of the company’s labor practice to distract its costumers from the media coverage and political activism that surround the conditions of its factories in Bangladesh.
When Gap changed its Twitter background to the picture of Sikh model Waris Ahluwalia, many commentators claimed a victory not only for social media, but for South Asians and Muslims as well. One blogger claimed the change was “to show solidarity and support” with those who were offended by the racist graffiti.
But if solidarity simply means changing a Twitter background, then we have not only failed in some fundamental way in understanding the politics of that term, but we have also relegated our identity to merely that of a consumer.
Gap has purposefully chosen to demonstrate solidarity with its brown consumers, but not with its brown factory workers. We have compromised our sense of racial solidarity for consumer solidarity, a solidarity between a corporation and its consumers that invites a racialized minority community to become rightful customers.
Yet this image of inclusivity means little when the actual practices of the company continue to exclude Bangladeshi workers from having basic human rights.
Can we think of an America, a world even, where those who do the heavy lifting are deemed beautiful enough to have their faces seen and voices heard?
Changing a Twitter background is easy. Seeing through the smoke and mirrors, organizing to put pressure on Gap and policymakers, and demanding better working conditions for sweatshop laborers in Bangladesh–that is hard work.
That is solidarity.