When the 1990s pop group Spice Girls announced an upcoming reunion tour in 2018, they introduced shirts emblazoned with “#IWannaBeASpiceGirl.” Turn the shirt around, and it reads “gender justice.”
Fans buying the clothing were also given a reason to feel good about it. According to the listing, 100 percent of the proceeds go to charity.
The charity chosen to receive the profits, Comic Relief’s Gender Justice initiative, espouses a belief that “women and girls should have equal power and agency in decisions.”
On the surface it looks like everyone wins when a shirt is bought.
Fans get a piece of merchandise from a band they enjoy, and get to help out underprivileged women while doing it. And although the band likely doesn’t make any money from these sales, the optics and good press make up for it.
But an investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian reveals that not every woman in this process is having a good time — and will likely cast a shadow over the group’s shows scheduled for the spring and summer in England and Scotland.
The Bangladeshi machinists responsible for making the shirts reportedly endure verbal abuse, 16-hour shifts, and “inhuman conditions.” Manufacturing thousands of garments a day, these mostly female workers are paid less than 50 cents an hour.
Some workers report neck problems, one of the hazards of being stooped over a sewing machine during the usual six-day work week. Pregnancy won’t catch employees a break either. One expectant mother was pushed into working late despite vomiting.
The factory’s conditions are only made worse by the country’s tropical climate. The building often gets so hot that workers pass out.
But despite a large body of evidence backing up the investigation’s findings, Interstoff Apparels, the factory’s parent company, said the claims are ““simply not true,” according to The Guardian. The company, however, said it would conduct its own investigation.
Represent, the online shop that was originally commissioned to make the shirts, eventually accepted responsibility for the poor sourcing of the shirts, according to The Guardian.
The Spice Girls and charity group Comic Relief both expressed shock over the findings.
“Both said they had checked the ethical sourcing credentials of Represent, the online retailer commissioned by the Spice Girls to make the T-shirts, but it had subsequently changed manufacturer without their knowledge,” The Guardian reported. “Represent said it took ‘full responsibility’ and would refund customers on request. The band said Represent should donate profits to ‘campaigns with the intention to end such injustices.'”
Considering the Spice Girls have a combined net worth of over $500 million, this paints a pretty stark disconnect between the elite pop stars and the Bangladeshi laborers. But with that kind of capital, these once-famous singers could effect some real change if they wanted to.
A quick scan of a Bangladeshi commerce site shows the stars could buy a factory for the low price of 8,500,000 Taka ($100,000 USD). Throw in a $50 steam whistle, and it would be a regular sweatshop.
Instead of relying on T-shirt sales to provide for disadvantaged women, with their own factory, the Spice Girls could create the equality these women are looking for — a safe work environment, a dignified job, and fair pay.
A campaigner interviewed by investigators reveals the same sentiments. Though forced to speak anonymously due to Bangladesh’s authoritarian government, the frustration is clear.
“The women who are producing these clothes are getting poverty wages. They don’t have a dignified job,” the campaigner said.
“What kind of gender justice is that?”
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