T-shirts with a feminist message emblazoned across the front were swiftly removed from stores amid shocking allegations that they had been produced by underpaid women working in a sweatshop and living in cramped living quarters.
For its December feminism issue, Elle UK joined forces with the Fawcett Society — Britain’s single largest women’s advocacy group — to design a T-shirt to celebrate and honor the cause of empowering women. However, a Sunday newspaper, Mail on Sunday, claimed that the “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts contradicted the message they were sporting — because they were made in a Mauritius sweatshop by impoverished women earning less than a $1 per hour work and sleeping 16 to a room. Catchy phrasing and custom printing on t shirts is often used to draw attention to or support a cause.
Celebrity U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson graced the cover the December issue wearing the T-shirt, which was also worn by a number of other celebrities for the campaign. Watson, along with other celebrities, felt strongly about using her celebrity status to support feminist efforts.
However, after the newspaper’s bombshell report was published, London store Whistles promptly took the t-shirt off the shelves, while Fawcett continued to claim their innocence and stand by their product. According to Eva Neitzert, Fawcett’s Deputy CEO, the t-shirts were manufactured in a “fully audited, socially and ethically compliant factory.”
Ben Ellery, a Mail on Sunday reporter, tells a much different story. Ellery toured the Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT) factory in La Tour Koenig in Mauritius, where the t-shirts were being made. Ellery claimed the workers earned under 6,000 Mauritian rupees or $200 USD per month. In comparison, the t shirts cost 9 British pounds (roughly $14) to make and are being sold for 45 British pounds ($72).
“It is important for any cause to be thorough in regulation of the product it is manufacturing,” says Elise Harding, Owner, Tee Compressed. “At Tee Compressed we print and compress in San Diego, CA. so that always know how the facility is running.”
The irony of the T-shirt’s design and message wasn’t lost on the workers. One worker went on to tell Ellery that she works 12 hours a day and struggles to survive on her meager salary. However, the managing director of the factory said employees worked no more than the legal 45-hour workweek limit. A monthly paycheck of 6,200 rupees, the equivalent of $207 USD, represents the minimum income level or poverty, according to the National Empowerment Fund.
Under Mauritian law, workers can’t be forced to work more than eight hours a day, six days a week, and must be paid one and a half times their normal salary in the event they work additional hours, according to the U.S. State Department. The government’s occupational safety and health regulations are difficult to enforce, however, because the country has few inspectors to investigate or implement regulations.