Beyoncé sweatshop controversy shines spotlight on harsh conditions of working women

Music icon Beyoncé made the news at the end of April with the release of her second surprise visual album Lemonade. Selling 485,000 units in its first week, the album, which focuses on infidelity, stands as the current anthem of scorned women everywhere. It even sparked controversy as listeners debated over whether Beyoncé was using art to imitate life–fueling rumors that her husband, rapper and businessman Jay-Z, had an extramarital affair. Yet, in the last two weeks a new controversy has surfaced, this one more dire than marital infidelity. Beyoncé has now come under fire as her latest clothing line endeavor, Ivy Park, is being accused of using sweatshop labor in Sri Lanka to manufacture its clothing. This news is definitely not music to Beyoncé fans’ ears.

Earlier this month the UK-based newspaper The Sun  published an exclusive story that highlighted the working conditions of a factory in Sri Lanka, owned by MAS Holdings, that produces Ivy Park. The article reported that workers at the factory, mostly young women from poor rural villages, were working 60 hours a week for a little over $6 a day. A young woman worker in the factory told The Sun that all the workers are able to do there was “work, sleep, work, sleep” as they work over 9 hours a day, Monday to Friday, with a 30-minute lunch break. The women often have to put in overtime on Saturday and Sunday as well. It was also reported that the workers are not entitled to sick pay and get no paid holiday in their first year. Most of the women reside in a 100-room boarding house close to the factory that has a 10:30 p.m. curfew. This boarding house only has a communal bathroom that was reportedly only installed recently.

In a mission statement for the clothing line, that is a joint venture with the popular UK clothing store Topshop, Beyoncé explained that her goal with Ivy Park was to “push the boundaries of ­athletic wear and to support and inspire women who understand that beauty is more than your physical appearance,” and that the brand “inspires women through sport.” The company that owns the factory that produces Ivy Park products, MAS holdings, claims a similar sentiment on its website. The company, owned by 61-year-old Sri Lankan business tycoon Mahesh Amalean, claims that, “MAS is proud to hold a global reputation for an ethical and sustainable working environment. The tireless effort put towards women’s empowerment has put MAS on the map as a global standard to aspire to.” MAS employs 74,000 workers, 70 percent of them women, in 48 factories in 15 countries across Asia.

Activists against the use of sweatshops argue that neither Ivy Park nor MAS holdings is following through on their mission statements. Jakub Sobik, press officer of the charity Anti-Slavery International, said in The Sun: “This is a form of sweatshop slavery. There are a number of elements here that tick the boxes in terms of slavery, the low pay, restriction of women’s movement at night and locking them in. Companies like Topshop have a duty to find out if these things are happening, and it has long been shown that ethical inspections by these companies are failing. They should be replaced by independent inspections.”

Ivy Park and Topshop are hitting back against the allegations of sweatshop labor: Both companies released statements denying the accusations. Arcadia, Topshop’s parent company, asserted that it enforces a “code of conduct” on suppliers, and that “When customers buy our goods they have to be sure they have been made under acceptable conditions. That means without exploiting the people who make them.” A representative for Ivy Park explained, “We are proud of our sustained efforts in terms of factory inspections and audits, and our teams worldwide work very closely with our suppliers and their factories to ensure compliance. We expect our suppliers to meet our code of conduct and we support them in achieving these requirements.”

It was also reported that MAS was not breaking any laws given that the company pays 18,500 rupees ($126.11 U.S.) a month, which is more than the legal minimum wage of 10,000 rupees ($68.18 U.S.). Activists in the of anti-sweatshop campaigns claim the livable wage is close to 43,000 rupees ($293.12 U.S.) a month.

It is clear that the women who work in the factories to produce Ivy Park clothing might never be able to actually afford to buy from the so-called “empowering” brand itself, but the role that this factory, and others like it, play in the global market is indeed a complex one.

Apparel represents 45 percent of Sri Lanka’s exports and provides jobs for roughly 300,000 people. According to a recent report from the World Bank (PDF), wages and working conditions in Sri Lanka are generally better than in other South Asian countries.

For developing countries, an increase in manufacturing can be seen as a step along the way to further economic growth and development. The creation of jobs pulls people out of rural conditions and into the cities in hopes of a better life, thus creating another sector of working people and possibly a middle class. Along with this, when workers fight for livable wages and a union, the quality of life in these countries can increase dramatically.

It is empowering to the economy and to the workers. We saw an example of this earlier this year when the Sri Lankan government announced that it would make no changes to labor laws without consulting the National Labor Advisory Council, which is the leading governing body of trade unions there.

The Industrial Revolution of Europe and the United States also provides examples of workers who stood up for their rights as manufacturing was on the rise. One of the reasons we have the eight hour work day is due to the continued struggles, and lives lost, of workers standing up in the 1870s through the 1880s within organizations such as the Knights of Labor and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. The latter organization was the precursor to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which represents millions of workers in the United States today.

Still, just as many of those conditions in the factories of the 18th and 19th centuries were often deplorable (10-hour or more workdays, heavy reliance on child labor, dangerous working conditions, etc.), there continues to be a need to put pressure on companies doing business in these countries to enforce work safety and ensure workers’ rights. Not only that, but workers must have the right to form a union. This is something that is not allowed in the MAS Holdings factories, and others like them. Anti-sweatshop activists, and the workers themselves, are paying attention to this issue.

Karl Marx once said when speaking of the capitalist economic system, “What the Bourgeoisie [bosses and owners] therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers.” As an exploited working class continues to form in developing countries under harsh conditions, it may begin to fight for better conditions and a better livelihood–thus challenging the very system that created it. We are seeing such a movement form in some of these countries to fight back against unjust working conditions. Strong leadership, especially by women, is emerging. One example of a strong female leader is Kalpona Akter, a labor leader in Bangladesh. Akter, along with U.S.-based allies such as United Students Against Sweatshops, is at the forefront of a movement of workers who are risking their lives and jobs traveling to different countries in order to put pressure on U.S. and European-based companies to improve apparel industry safety in Bangladesh.

One could conclude that the workers, a majority of them women, working in the MAS Holdings factories on the Ivy Park brand are on a path to joining in with this movement, as they begin speaking up to the press about the horrific conditions under which they suffer. Yet they have a long way to go, and will need solidarity and support. One source of help could well be Queen Bey herself. For if Ivy Park is to truly be an empowering brand for women, it can’t exclude the very people who allow it to exist–the (mostly women) workers who produce it.

Photo: Right – Mina, a garment worker in Bangladesh. Left – Beyoncé   |   composite image; AP


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.