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Aisling O’Connor: The sweatshop allegations that have shocked the New York rag trade


Alexander Wang: He strongly denies sweatshop allegations

Alexander Wang: He strongly denies sweatshop allegations

Alexander Wang: He strongly denies sweatshop allegations

MARCH has been a rollercoaster of a month thus far for New York based king of ‘Off Duty Chic’, designer Alexander Wang. In the wake of public accusations of sweatshop practices and a $450M class action law suit filed and dropped, to be soon refilled in federal court; Tuesday saw Wang’s New York employees cleaning the exterior of his flagship store in SoHo after an egging incident.

A former employee at Wang’s Broadway offices began legal proceedings after being allegedly fired for filing for workers compensation. According to the New York Post, first to sue was Wenyu Lu who claims to have routinely worked 16 hour shifts without overtime in an unventilated, windowless 200-square-foot space and ‘claims he was hospitalized for several days after he passed out at his work station because he was forced to work 25 hours straight — without a break — and was told he’d be fired if he didn’t follow orders’.

The bill totalled 30 employees suing Wang; including Flor Duante who claimed that having worked 90-hour weeks; she was also sacked after applying for workers compensation.

Wang’s representatives strongly denied the claims in the law suit in a statement to Women’s Wear Daily, ‘The company takes its obligations to comply with the law very seriously, including the relevant wage and hour regulations, the payment of overtime to eligible employees and having a safe working environment for all of our employees. We will vehemently defend any allegations to the contrary’.

So is this a case of disgruntled ex-employees seeking to benefit from tarnishing the name of their former boss, or are sweatshop supply chain tactics continuing to endure legislation, lobbying and investigation?

Alexander Wang is certainly not the first clothing business to be embroiled in such a controversy. American super brands Nike, Wal-Mart, Target, Gap, J.C. Penney and Abercrombie & Fitch have all been accused of benefitting from sweatshop practices in developing countries.

Anti-globalisation and anti-sweatshop movements, along with government agencies and the media-at-large endeavour to uncover any lax practice in health and safety, and labour violations in the US and developing countries.

Problems occur when big brands engage in a ‘race to the bottom’; forcing factories to cut costs under threat of contract-leaping to another low-cost country. This often results in abuse of modern work standards in hours, conditions and workforce age profile. The sticking problem is that until employees are found to be harmed or severely mistreated, the cycle continues.

2010 was a heavy year for the H&M PR squad. After being found to have shredded and dumped unsold clothing in the midst of a severe winter in New York, and the German edition of the Financial Times implicating the brand in organic cotton fraud, The Independent reported on a fire that had killed 21 people working overtime to meet a quota in the Garib Garib factory in Bangladesh which supplies to the Swedish brand. The fire safety equipment was reported be non-functional and the exit doors had been locked to prevent theft.

Not just fast in fashion, but quick in response, H&M went about cleaning up its image and practices. April 2011 saw the release of Conscious Collection, a line made from sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester. The brand continued to tow the ethical line by publicising the education of 300,000 Bangladeshi workers on their rights.

H&M’s press release of January 24, 2012 commemorated the victims of the 2010 Garib Garib fire and promised continued dedication to the children of the victims and to educating the textile workers of Bangladesh.

Like Alexander Wang, celebrity brands may be smaller than the likes of H&M, Nike and Gap but are not immune to the watchful eye of the media and ethical supply chain advocates.

P Diddy came under fire in 2003 when the New York Times reported that his Sean John fashion line was being investigated after workers reported sweatshop conditions at a factory in Honduras that supplied the brand.

In December 2011, Star magazine claimed that the Kim Kardashian co-owned and fronted brand ShoeDazzle, was among others sold at the Kardashian DASH stores that engaged in sweatshop manufacturing in China.

Reps for the first family of reality TV stated at the time that they had no idea that this was the case and they were taking this very seriously.

Fashion brands, from mammoth to niche, stand to lose their good reputation and be forever tarnished as unethical profiteers if they engage in developing world manufacturing. Although each and every company will deny any association with such practices, they continue to go to these countries in pursuit of higher profit margins.

It is clear that the practise continues, below the line of denial. Asian sweatshops still exist and are turning out low cost garments to fashion businesses globally.

The shocking thing about the Wang case is the idea that age-old sweatshop practices could be perpetuated by a Taiwanese-American in the US fashion capital.

With fashion brands spending millions on celebrity endorsement deals, it is inevitable that as marketing budgets soar, manufacturing costs will be pushed down. The face, the prestige and perceived luxury of a brand is worth more in real dollars and cents, than the labour that goes into turning out the actual product.

Nike, Gap and H&M have no doubt had to spend millions per year solely on marketing their good ethics. Consider if they had never been implicated in dodgy manufacturing, the money could have gone to deserving workers and sustaining company financial performance.

The hope is that Alexander Wang is innocent of the sweatshop allegations and his company will recover from the bad press. There is a lesson here for brands big and small, from fast to luxury fashion, that even an allegation of unethical practices can mean major commercial losses, and that ultimately an investment in your people and process is an investment in your brand.

On the balance of risking a business’s goodwill for super profits, providing fair wages and safe work conditions for a tidy profit is really nothing to sneeze at.

Aisling tweets @ashinyoconnor