The Daily Mail Fabricated A Controversy Over T-Shirts To Sully A Women’s Rights Organization, And It Worked

According to the UK’s Daily Mail, a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt worn by politicians and celebrities like Benedict Cumberbatch (posing in the shirt, above) was made by women in Mauritian sweatshops working 45 hour work weeks at 99 cents an hour, and sleeping in rooms with 15 other women. The shirts retail for $85, with all the proceeds going to the Fawcett Society, a UK women’s rights organization.

However: The Fawcett Society responded saying that they had received an e-mail from the factory assuring them that the working conditions are up to “ethical standards,” specifically accreditation from OKEO-TEX for environmental standards and Sedex SMETA auditing for ethical standards. SMETA auditing is based on the Ethical Trade Initiative Base Code, which requires a living wage. It turns out that minimum wage in Mauritus is about $20 a week, and so the women working in that “sweatshop” (I don’t know if it can be characterized as such) are actually making twice the minimum wage for their country. The 45-hour work week is a standard work week, and the factory claims that any overtime is paid accordingly.

Big sigh. It bears noting that American consumers purchasing the shirt would be paying almost two weeks’ wages for one woman to buy one shirt. But it’s also important to mention that Fawcett operates in the UK, where the cost of operating a not-for-profit organization is incredibly high — therefore the $85 price tag on the shirt, and the incredible difference in the cost of producing the shirt and the cost of buying the shirt. Fawcett is doing its due diligence by requiring that Whistles, the retailer, is using a factory to produce these T-shirts that pays its employees well and has employee protections.

Fawcett, meanwhile, has been operating at a loss for the past three years. Its Charity Commission report shows that it generated £477,275 in income in 2013 and spent £504,068. It’s not the kind of charity that gives money to people in need or directly provides aid –its purpose is to perform advocacy, run campaigns, produce educational materials. It’s a very service work-type charity. They had 10 employees in 2013 and paid about £280,000 in salaries. No employee made more than £50,000, and the average salary at Fawcett is roughly the same as the average salary in the UK.

For a women’s rights charity in a highly economically developed country, this is appropriate work to do. Here are some statistics on gender inequality in the UK: Full-time female employees make 15 percent less than full-time male employees, and part-time female employees make 35 percent less than male part-time employees. There are 24,000 girls in the UK who are at risk for female genital mutilation. About 44 percent of women in the UK say they’ve experienced physical or sexual violence in a relationship, and Britain ranks among the worst European countries for domestic and partner abuse. From 2001 to 2010, women practically vanished from public positions in Britain. Advocacy about equal pay, gender discrimination, gender-based violence, and political representation is worthwhile and necessary in the UK.

I say all of this to come around to the point that it’s really hard to criticize Fawcett. I was prepared to do so because I hate the type of swooning over male feminists that happened when Benedict Cumberbatch appeared in one of the Whistles/Fawcett “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts for Elle UK’s Feminism Issue (above), because while I appreciate male support of feminism, male feminism should not be made to be “sexy.” I don’t put that on men, I put that on the women who write gushing tweets about how hot it is that he’s a feminist, because COME ON. Feminism shouldn’t be exceptional or extraordinary for men to adopt, and they shouldn’t be thanked for it as if male feminism is men doing women a favor. You believe in equal rights and believe it’s important to address any and all gender gaps, or you don’t, regardless of your gender. But anyway. The point is, once I actually looked into their work, the way they operate, and the economic reality on the UK and Mauritius sides of these T-shirts, it was hard to criticize Fawcett itself.

The fact that the Daily Mail swirled up this controversy for no good reason isn’t exactly surprising. Everybody has known for a long time that the Daily Mail is sexist, and this is a pretty transparent attack on a women’s organization that fights exactly the kind of misogynist stereotypes that the Daily Mail perpetuates. You might want to say, “Well, but those women in Mauritius aren’t making as much as women in the UK!” No, they’re not, but that’s not relevant in light of the fact that they make more money than most people who are living in the Mauritian economy, or in light of the fact that Whistles has ethics audit reports on file for the factory. The difference between the economy of Mauritius and the economy of the UK is not Fawcett’s fault. In fact, if you really want to lay blame on someone for the differences between the economies of Mauritius and the UK, you might want to look at people like the Viscount who’s the majority shareholder of the Daily Mail, since it was landed white men who invested in colonizing Asia and Africa, drew nonsensical boundaries over the continents, put in white-run governments, and then proceeded to exploit all of the human and natural resources they could over the course of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in order to bolster their own wealth at home. (The Harmsworth family didn’t, but the British aristocracy has a lot to answer for, historically.)

And, in a tremendous twist of irony, I have to point out that the Daily Mail was operating, in this whole scheme, on the white-savior sentiment that says that India cannot, without the help of white people from Harvard, draft their own sexual violence laws. It’s the same sentiment that leads to “voluntourism”:

voluntourists of Twitter

— not a white man (@NotAllBhas) November 5, 2014

And it’s the same sentiment that calls a factory that operates in an economy that only has so much money going around to pay its workers a “sweatshop,” despite the fact that that factory pays its employees a fair wage for that economy and submits to ethics auditing, basically just because it’s in Africa, and if something is in Africa, it must inherently be broken and waiting for Americans and Europeans to fix it, right?

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be interested and invested in the economic welfare of other countries, it’s just that if we’re going to claim to be interested and invested, we should probably do more homework than reading the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, even progressive sites like Mic have jumped on the Fawcett-hate bandwagon (the article itself is tepid but they use a clickbait headline with “horrifying secret” in the title), and the Daily Mail’s advertent or inadvertent campaign to smear the women’s rights organization has been working despite the fact that Fawcett, Whistles, and the factory in question have all been living up to ethical principles. Good work, everyone.

Do we need to look hard at the whole system of factory labor? Yes, absolutely. We also need to look at the whole picture about media coverage of stories like this. The Daily Mail isn’t truly invested in workers’ rights, but it is invested in its own revenue, and in propagating a culture in which they can profit off of toxic gender stereotypes. They presented a salacious and ultimately misleading story that in no way took into account the economic context of either the factory or Fawcett, and in so doing managed to attach a controversy to a feminist organization’s reputation. The Daily Mail engaged in “faux-minism” for the sake of clicks, and while Fawcett will continue to do good work in the realm of feminist issues like equal pay and gender discrimination at work, I doubt the Daily Mail will be following up on its article with the same interest in the welfare of women anywhere.

[Daily Mail]
[Fawcett Society]
[Sedex Global]
[Ethical Trade Initiative]
[US State Department]
[Charity Commission (1)]
[Charity Commission (2)]
[Guardian (1)]
[Elle UK]
[Guardian (2)]
[Mic (1)]
[Huffington Post]
[Mic (2)]

[Image via Elle UK]

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