Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sweatshop web-series: Scandinavian fashion bloggers facing the textile industry in Cambodia

Posted by Amanda Villaruel | |
[Summary and review] "Sweatshop" is a Norwegian-produced web-series about the fast fashion industry, sometimes called the "deadly fashion".

Production of fast fashion typically exists in low-cost countries, namely Bangladesh and Cambodia. The textile workers are forced to deal with harsh labor conditions, few labor rights and low minimum wages.
Review and summary of Sweatshop web-series
Review and summary of Sweatshop web-series

The second season of Sweatshop was released about a week ago. In the first season, Norwegian fashion bloggers visited and worked at a factory (not a H&M factory) to get to know the industry better.

In the second season, two of the Norwegian bloggers, Anniken and Frida, are back along with Swedish bloggers Sarah and Lisa. They don't have any specific appointment with any textile factories working for H&M, but only a promise from the second largest clothing retailer in the world that they could visit "any supplier they want", presumably to prove that H&M doesn't have anything to hide.

Before filming, the film crew contacted 315 textile factories in Cambodia, but none of them replied.
Norwegian and Swedish bloggers in Cambodia to uncover the truth about the textile industry. Photo courtesy of Aftenposten via
Norwegian and Swedish bloggers in Cambodia to uncover the truth about the textile industry.
Photo courtesy of Aftenposten via

We're in Phnom Penh - the heart of Cambodia.

The series showed that the girls tried to get inside four textile factories (if I counted right) that all presumably worked with H&M.

Not surprising, they were rejected at the gates.

One of them commented that the guards were watching over the factory like a prison. Like they were trying to hide something. At the last gate, they were fed up and decided to just walk right in, even if the guards said that it wasn't allowed. The girls managed to get a glimpse of a large hall filled with neon light, and countless sewers sitting next to their working tables.

During the series, the girls talk to several textile workers and a worker's association. At the time they were interviewed, the minimum wage was $ 128 per month (the minimum wage for the garment sector was later raised to $ 140 for 2016). But the workers want a living wage at $ 177 per month.

Here are some of the things that was revealed about the working conditions:

  1. It is common in the Cambodian textile industry to operate with short term contracts that last for three months.

  2. Because of the low minimum wage, the workers are forced to work over-time to try to survive.

  3. When the clothing retailers would visit the factories, the workers were told by their superiors to tidy up and say that "everything was fine". The superiors would instruct them on what to say during these visits.

  4. There are approx. 650.000-700.000 Cambodians working in the textile industry. Mass fainting during work is pretty common.

Read: Mass fainting at Cambodian factories brings country's textile industry under scrutiny.
Give the textile workers in Cambodia a living wage. Photo courtesy of
Give the textile workers in Cambodia a living wage. Photo courtesy of

When the girls were rejected at the gates the first time, they contacted H&M immediately.

Even if Frida and Anniken had gotten an invitation from H&M, it was not possible to visit a factory that day, and that H&M "needed time to plan" and organize the visit. The girls were asked to provide H&M with a date so they could arrange a visit.

In one of the last episodes, the girls contacted H&M again to set up a date. They also provided the name of the factory they wanted to check out.

Later it turned out that this factory was removed from H&M's list of suppliers in Cambodia. According to H&M, this supplier was removed from the list because of lack of adherence to H&M's Code of Conduct.1

Have you watched the series? What is your first impression?

I think these girls are doing an important job, trying to confront H&M and the textile industry in general. They are helping the garment workers by spreading the word, which hopefully at the end will have a positive outcome :-) Fashion bloggers are considered as role models by some readers, and by shedding light on the 'right things' like sweatshops (and not how many jeans you need), these bloggers can actually serve as an inspiration for their readers.

H&M is a multinational corporation with power and status that other retailers can only dream of. Sure, H&M has committed itself to sustainable and ethical fashion, but as Frida mentioned in the series, H&M has a way with words. H&M knows exactly what to say.
Sweatshop series: the hunt for living wage. Photo courtesy of
Sweatshop series: the hunt for living wage. Photo courtesy of

A couple of things I reacted to though, is how the Sweatshop web-series seems one sided and how the girls approached the factories.

The factories the girls try to access are automatically portrayed like they're hiding something, and where is H&M in all of this? Nowadays you need an appointment to get inside public or private institutions, whether you're in Norway, US or Cambodia. That's how the real world works. Just because the girls were denied access, doesn't necessarily mean that the textile factories were hiding something.

That's the thing with documentaries in general. You only get a glimpse of what the producers believe is important, not necessarily getting the whole picture.

The girls are acting like activists at the last gate, trying to get inside the premises. I understand their frustration that builds up when you're trying to do the right thing, but get "constantly" rejected. To make a long story short, I tried to get interviews with local bureaucrats in India regarding social and environmental issues, which wasn't exactly a popular subject. I didn't even have a camera team with me, and it was very difficult to get interviews.

So, maybe diplomacy would have worked better for the girls?

Apparently, Anniken and Frida was invited by H&M to visit a supplier, but without the camera team. The girls didn't accept the invitation because obviously, they wanted the camera team with them. If I was in their shoes, I would just accept that invitation, talk to people at the factory and then report afterwards. At least you'll get access and information about how things work. Sometimes you need to swallow your pride.

Watch the web-series here. (with English subtext)

If you want to know about the series, visit this page (it's in English).

Continue to read:
The pros and cons of following the latest fast fashion.

"Made in Bangladesh" equals unethical clothing?


Have your say about what you just read :)

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