H&M To Donate Millions For Child Refugee Education, But What About Addressing Its Sweatshop Problem?

We recently came across an interesting article about a very important and timely issue. Global retailer H&M announced their H&M Foundation has partnered with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to help refugee children have access to education.

In a press release, H&M stated that across their 4000 stores worldwide, they collected a percentage from gift cards sold during November and December 2016 in order to “benefit refugee children across the world, including in Chad, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Uganda and Yemen.”

We are currently seeing the largest humanitarian crisis of our time, with more refugees and displaced persons across the world today than during WWII. Developed nations are agonizing over immigration policies as some don’t want the influx of refugees escaping war torn areas “flooding” their country, and others want to help them find peace and a sustainable future. It has become one of the most divisive and controversial geo-political issues, allowing many fringe parties and political candidates, such as Donald Trump, to rise up and ride to power off the back of fear-mongering and scapegoating minorities.

The people who are losing out are the refugees themselves, with over half of them being children. Only 50% have access to primary school, and even less go on to complete secondary. This complication hits girls and young women the hardest, due to an increase in violence, forced marriage, and patriarchal, conservative cultures which already don’t view a girls’ education as important to her future.

Thanks to the H&M Foundation’s pledge of $3.3 million toward child refugee education, UNHCR will supply textbooks and stationery, for example, which can help ensure they will be able to access education and stay in school.

“Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than other children. This is why providing the supplies they need to go to school is so crucial. With this donation, UNHCR can ensure an education for many children in crisis settings across the world,” said Diana Amini, Global Manager for H&M Foundation.

We love that the H&M Foundation, which is a non-profit global foundation, privately funded by the Stefan Persson family, founders, and main owners of H&M, are using a small share of their gigantic profits for such a noble cause. We want to give credit where credit is due (and we certainly hope they plan to follow up by released statistics and stories about how the money has benefited refugee children).

But what we have a problem with is the lack of focus on addressing their ties to cheap, forced, and unsafe labor in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia. H&M was identified as one of the major global clothing brands to use slave labor where garment factory workers, who are majority women and girls, are forced to endure “criminally abusive conditions” to make clothing for your fave fast fashion chains.

In 20115, the Human Rights Watch released a report called ‘Work Faster or Get Out’ which specifically addressed human rights abuses in the garment sector in Cambodia. Patrick Winn, writing for Salon.com, pointed to a few key issues that were found in the HRW report.

“According to the report, one woman at a factory supplying H&M clothes ‘estimated that 20 of the 60 workers were children.’ Others told Human Rights Watch that ‘children worked as hard as adults’ and would stitch long hours into the night…Roughly 90% of Cambodia’s seamstresses are women. And if they get pregnant, they’re often fired. Pregnant workers are seen as slow, unproductive and prone to frequent bathroom breaks. At nearly half of the 70 factories investigated in the report, workers reported discrimination against pregnant workers,” he wrote.

With many of these garment workers choosing the lesser of two evils, if you will, (working in factories is seen as a more favorable than working in rice fields where they earn much less) it is certainly a far cry from women and children being afforded the kind of value and safety they deserve.

You may recall the collapse of the garment factory in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, in 2013 where over 1100 people were killed due to being forced to work in an horrendously unsafe premises, where 38 managers and employers were charged with murder. This is happening today, and in a number of places. And it is incumbent upon H&M (as well as other retailers) to use their power and money to make a change in the supply chain.

The reason why fast fashion clothing is so cheap is because of women and children working in unsafe, unsanitary and oppressive/abusive conditions. Let’s not forget that. Broadly.com also wrote about the HRW study and spoke with an Indian labor rights activist who addressed H&M’s supposed attempt to improve supply chain conditions, which they have previously stated has been a focus of their efforts for some years now. But the proof is in the data.

“The thing we find with H&M is that they are superficially responsive—they’ll answer phone calls and emails. But they’re actually very non-transparent. They won’t tell us which factories they’re running pilot schemes in, and they’ve not been forthcoming about how they plan to introduce their living wage,” said activist Anannya Bhattacharjee.

She also reiterates the way this problem disproportionately affects the lives of women and girls.

“This a huge problem in an industry dominated by female workers. They’re forced to leave, or they’re fired. And if they rejoin, they’ll lose the seniority and benefits…If you look at the workforce of the garment industry, it’s 85% female, mostly of childbearing age. They’re almost all on short-term contracts, and they can’t tell their bosses they’re pregnant because they won’t renew their contract, so they seek abortions. And when we’re talking about abortions in Cambodia, these aren’t proper medical abortions,” she said.

People are not being paid, workers are dying, being discriminated against for being sick or pregnant, and suffering under criminal environments because they have no voice to speak out or demand their rights (which in many cases can be scant, or non-existent in the first place).

When we talk about the need for feminist policies and an increased focus on gender equality worldwide, this is why. Launching an initiative to help child refugees become education is SUPER important. Always. But when it is a company that, on the surface, dedicates a lot of its visuals and campaigns to feminism, equality, and diversity, cannot even properly address the underlying way it is contributing to the oppression of women and children who make them profitable, how feminist can they really be?

We don’t just want to see ground-breaking viral campaigns (which we have celebrated and high-fived multiple times). Those are great, but they are only a fraction of the picture and message about equality. We want to see H&M do more to stop slave labor from being its reason for success. If that means we pay a lot more money for clothing, so be it!




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