A three-year long series of art projects with, by and about garment workers in Bangladesh, exhibited in Dhaka and Toronto.
This project has its own website. For more information, images, photographic portraits of garment workers by Clare Samuel, and conversations Robin Pacific had with 40 garment workers, visit:
Exhibition "Flowers and Threads"EMK Center for Public Service and the Arts, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2015
Work by and about garment workers, facilitated by Leah Houston and Robin Pacific. Photographs of garment workers by Clare Samuel.
ActionFast Event, Great Hall, Toronto, 2017
Two days of installations, art by garment workers and supporters, a Mock Sweatshop, a Rana Plaza Memorial, food, pop up fashion, and music and dance performances. Produced and art directed by Robin Pacific.
FAST= Fair living wage; Adult labour only; Safe working conditions, and Timely payment.
ABOUT ACTION FAST
My Uncle Sammy had a children’s dress factory in Montreal, and his wife, my Auntie Claire, designed the clothes. Every spring and every fall they would send a box of dresses to me in Vancouver, starting from about the age of three. I still remember the thrill of opening the box, beautiful dresses spilling out. I refused to wear anything, else, especially dreaded pants. And so began my career as a fashionista. I come by it honestly. My mother’s aunt was a costume designer on one of the big Hollywood sets, and would send my mother costumes which she then made over, long before Molly Ringwald did it in Pretty in Pink. My niece is a fashion editor and for a time was editor in chief of a national fashion magazine. In short, like all the women in my family, I’ve always loved clothes, and love them even more if I can get them on sale, or even better, wholesale.
So my first trip to Joe Fresh was a revelation. I walked out with two pairs of pants and three adorable t shirts, for an astonishing $50 outlay. (This was about ten years ago; both the designs and the quality were much better then). But I started to question: how was this possible? How could they possibly make them, let alone ship them, for a few dollars a piece?
Then, in 2012, the Tazreen Factiory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killed 117 garment workers and injured another 500. I was getting cute bargains on the backs of hungry, exploited and dying women. I recalled from my early reading of labour history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York in 1911, which killed 146 garment workers, again mostly women. That tragedy, coming in the midst of intense labour unrest in the U.S., led to reforms in labour legislation, including the 9 hour day, paid overtime, and mandatory safety regulations.
But over a hundred years later we had just offloaded the obscene working conditions in first world fashion factories to the developing world--while eliminating relatively well paying jobs in North America. Women are working 14 hour days, often with no paid overtime, six days a week, are denied bathroom breaks and often sworn at, spit at and even sexually harassed. In fact,
It is suspected that the deaths at Tazreen were largely caused by the exits being locked so women couldn’t take unscheduled bathroom breaks.
Then Rana Plaza happened. On April 24, 2013, an eight story building housing several factory floors collapsed, killing over 1100 people.
I knew I had to act.
I started with a series of lunches and dinners at my house, with 3-5 invited women. I gave a ten minute overview of the Bangladesh garment industry in the context of free trade and global capital, and let the wine and the conversation flow. Out of eleven of these meals, many ideas for art projects were generated. But the consensus was that if I was going to make art on behalf of garment workers, I would have to go to Bangladesh and meet some of them, and incorporate their voices, their concerns, their wishes.
With Leah Houston, Artistic Director of Mabelle Arts, and photographer Clare Samuel, I went to Dhaka in November of 2014. Leah led art making workshops with over 100 workers, Clare made beautiful photgraphic portraits, and I had taped conversations with forty of them. We were privileged to work with some of the survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse.
Back in Canada, I held more art workshops with Canadian garment workers, members of Workers United Union, and other interested groups. I returned to Dhaka by myself in 2015 and exhibited the work at the EMK Centre for Public Service and the Arts. In May 2017, I organized a two day festival to celebrate and memorialize the remarkable young women I met in Dhaka, and garment workers everywhere who make our clothes. There was a Mock Sweatshop where people could deconstruct thrift store t shirts and make giant three headed shirts; a memorial to the victims and survivors of Rana Plaza; exhibits of the artwork made in Dhaka and Toronto; eleven performing acts by Canadian and Bangladeshi dancers, singers and poets; and a pop up market selling indie Canadian designers.
Has anything changed? The Safety Accord, which was signed by major retailers after the Rana Plaza disaster (while other major retailers, notably Walmart and Hudson Bay drew up their own non binding safety regulations), did make some improvements. At the time of writing this in April, 2019, the Accord is under threat of not being renewed by the Bangladesh government, responding to pressure from the Garment Makers Assocation. A few thousand workers were fired last January for participating in a wildcat strike. The overburdened local labour organizations, who helped us to meet garment workers, are struggling heroically to get the Safety Accord renewed, and to get the workers jobs reinstated.
I think back to my Uncle Sammy’s dress factory, and realize now that he was, in fact, running a sweatshop -- by underpaying Quebecoise seamstresses. My whole life I’ve been wearing clothes, as have most of us, made by women who do not enjoy our privileges--privileges of class, sometimes of race, of income, of geography. But for however brief a time, connections were made between supporters here and garment workers there. Art brought us together, and perhaps some of us were subtly changed. I hope so.