In the introduction to the series of short films called Fashion Exposed, rows of young women sit, heads wrapped in scarves, in front of sewing machines, doggedly working through piles of bright blue fabric.
They stitch hems, sew on labels; when one piece is done, they reach for another. They don’t speak. The air buzzes monotonously. You can almost feel the heat.
Later, you see a little girl, her hair just washed, plastic pearls around her neck, chat happily to her mother – one of the women at the factory – while her hair is dried with a towel. The two eat and read together, the girl’s voice trilling happily with her mother’s.
One sentence comes up on the screen: ‘long hours mean that garment workers have very little time to spend with their families’. The implication: that these moments captured on screen are amongst the precious few that this little girl spends with her mother.
As the world wakes up to the real costs of high street fashion, Fashion Exposed – a co-project between UK fashion reuse charity TRAID, campaign group Labour Behind the Label and Cambodian labour and human rights organisation Central Citizen Journalists in Cambodia – is timely.
Mentored by documentary makers Rainbow Collective, 50 garment workers in Phnom Penh were invited to document the gruelling day-to-day reality of their lives, stitching clothes for export to European and US high streets.
In a series of 1-3 minute shorts, filmed at great risk to themselves, workers captured scenes showing the flooding of their homes, a regular occurrence due to overcrowding and poor sanitation; the risks of travelling to work on over-crowded trucks, in which thousands of workers have been injured or killed; the long days their children spend without them ….
“Cambodian garment factories are a major source of clothing for the UK high street, and the relentless fast fashion industry plays a major role in pushing wages down and turning a blind eye to worker safety,” says Nicola Round at Labour Behind the Label.
“It’s important people know where their clothes come from and under what conditions they are made. By telling their story, these film-makers did something truly heroic, standing up to oppression and showing the outside world what life is really like in the garment factories.”
With evidence like this, she says, campaigners can hold brands to account for the conditions and pay in their factories, and support the fair demands of the people – most of them women – who make our clothes.
Hannan Majid is Co-Director & Co-Founder Rainbow Collective: “It was so important for us to spend time with the courageous workers in Phnom Penh,” she reflects. “They are acutely aware of the very real dangers they face on a daily basis by standing up for workers’ through video journalism and we have nothing but admiration for their bravery and integrity.”
“We were blown away by the strength and quality of the footage shot by the team as soon as they started bringing it to us. Every evening, we would travel around Phnom Penh, meeting small groups of the 60 strong team, watch their footage, offer feedback and copy the footage onto our hard drives.
This was one of the most stressful parts of the process. “We felt quite exposed, meeting in public parks and streets, transferring footage which we knew the government would not be happy about,” Majid recalls.
Each night, she and her team would then upload the footage to iCloud in order to avoid having it in their possession longer than necessary. But it was nothing compared to the risks the workers took upon themselves to tell their stories, she says.
Rainbow Collective never asked workers to film in factories – too dangerous. “We went out of our way to instruct them to only film in their home environments,” says Majid. “[But] the team would hear nothing of it though and insisted on going all the way.”
“For us, the bravery and determination they show their peers through these actions is as valuable to their movement as the films themselves.”
The films are a testament to what has become possible through technology. “Smart phones mean that anyone with the will and the access to expose a story can get out there and do it,” says Majid.
“The ability to watch other videos via online platforms by non-professional film makers has given the workers a knowledge and awareness of film grammar which they were able to apply as soon as we introduced them to the technical basics.”
She recalls a moment when she met one of the team after his house had been flooded. “Many of his possessions were floating out into the alleyway. [But] his first instinct was to get his camera phone out and film what was happening, not as an amateur bystander but through a whole series powerful and expressive angles.”
During workshops, the workers expressed their hopes for Fashion Exposed: “Cambodian Youtube channels have become huge in the last couple of years, with hundreds of thousands of viewers watching reports by journalists on the garment workers’ struggle.
“This project allows us to become part of that movement. We want to use our videos to show the struggles in our daily lives and to show how impossible it is to live on the tiny amount of money which we are paid. We want to show the conditions in which we have to bring up our children.” The least we can do is watch them.
Fashion Exposed can be seen here at Traid’s YouTube channel.