“By reporting injustice and exploitation in the fashion industry’s supply chain, we can change the conditions of self-employed seamstresses and help them do their work with authority and dignity", Taciana Gouveia, coordinator of the SAAP Fund—the Project Support and Advising Service.
“Unlike the typical upbringing that women had in the 1960s, my parents gave me the freedom to choose the career I wanted. I was born in Recife, Brazil. I have two sisters and we were raised to make our careers the priority, not marriage.
When I was 16, I had a baby with my boyfriend. We ended up living together but later separated. I stayed in high school even during my pregnancy. Later, I studied psychology, took part in student movements, engaged in political activism, and because I had the support of my family, I never stopped studying.
My youth coincided with the political opening of the 1980’s in Brazil, when social movements were all the rage. I enjoyed the liberties won by feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s. I became a teacher, finished my master’s degree in sociology and became a professor at a private college.
My first interaction with feminism came in 1992, when I joined SOS Corpo Feminist Institute for Democracy, one of the oldest NGOs in the country, founded in Pernambuco in 1981. I worked as an educator for 18 years and as a coordinator for over a decade. There, I laid the foundation—and set the stage—for my path forward in the women's rights movement.
In 2018, I moved to Rio de Janeiro and began coordinating the SAAP Fund (Project Support and Advising Service), which supports and strengthens Brazilian groups, organizations, and NGOs that work to challenge racism, sexism, and patriarchy. The SAAP Fund is part of FASE (the Federation of Organisations for Social and Educational Assistance), an NGO that has been working with civil rights, democracy, and sustainability organisations and social movements since 1961. Our causes involve urban living, environmental justice, food sovereignty and security, and women’s rights.
In 2019, with support from C&A Foundation, we surveyed and mapped the living and working conditions of self-employed seamstresses in three geographical areas: the Metropolitan Region of Rio de Janeiro, the municipality of São Paulo (Metropolitan Region of Recife) and five municipalities in the Agreste region of the State of Pernambuco. These areas were chosen due to their importance for the Brazilian textile and apparel industries. Up until the early 1960s, the Agreste region held a strategic position for cotton production, whilst the Metropolitan Region was an important centre for the textile industry. Later, the Southeast took over as the main hub in this production chain. This transition caused financial hardships for the region but also created the Sulanca clothing fair, which was initiated by seamstresses to boost their income by selling clothing that was made with scrape polyester fabric. Now, 40 years on, the Agreste region has been established as a modern fashion centre.
The fashion industry has always been based on the inequalities between men and women. From cotton production to advertising, the supply chain in the fashion industry is by women for women. Historically, it is women who have always been responsible for tending to their own family’s garments, and that still remains true today. But at the other end of the spectrum—haute couture—the names that stand out in the fashion industry are all male. Feminine aesthetics, starting with the wardrobe, are set by men who dictate the trends and profit handsomely from it. However, it is seamstresses who actually produce the fashion, and most of the time they are the invisible element that keeps the industry going.
In partnership with 16 groups of women activists, we surveyed the living and working conditions of more than 250 seamstresses who work out of their homes. Especially in the Agreste, there are no written contracts or receipts for the delivery of their work—all of the agreements are verbal. These seamstresses are thrust into a business model that is built on exploitation and invisibility. And as though that weren’t enough, they are also deprived of the creative aspect of the work. Sewing is much more than just the set of repetitive movements that the current business model demands, it also requires abstract thinking, mathematical calculations and inventiveness.
In the Agreste region of Pernambuco, 70% of self-employed seamstresses earn up to one minimum-wage salary per month, whilst 38% receive just a quarter of that amount. In Rio, the pay is between minimum wage and twice the minimum wage. In all of the regions that we surveyed, the seamstresses are mostly black women with children. And since they work from home, there is no separation between their paid work and their housework—so their workdays are exhausting.
On an average day, they can spend up to 10 to 15 hours on sewing alone. In addition, they also absorb all of the maintenance costs for their sewing machines, including needles and thread. Their electricity bills are sky-high. These seamstresses have a lot of expenses but earn a pittance for their work. In Rio, the payment they receive for an entire piece varies between 7 and 15 Brazilian reals (about £1.43 to £3.07 or €1.61 to €3.46), and in the Agreste region of Pernambuco State, half of the women earn as little as one real (about 20 pence or 23 euro cents).
One of the most terrifying jobs for the seamstresses is cleaning jeans. Those who perform that task sit on a stool, low to the ground, and they must do 800 cleanings per month just to earn one-quarter of a minimum-wage salary. When asked what might improve her situation, one of these women replied: ‘Working standing up would help’. And when we asked them about their hopes and dreams, we heard one woman say: ‘Travelling, having a house at the beach and spending a day without sewing’—all three at the same level of importance.
Now we’re working to make structural changes to the seamstresses’ living and working conditions. They’re aware that they’re being deprived of their rights and we want to work with them to secure those rights. In the next stage of this project, we’ll be publishing our data in order to get the public thinking about these issues. We need to start asking the question, 'What conditions are our clothes being made in?' The groups of women who have partnered with us will be holding events in Rio de Janeiro and in Pernambuco, so that we can critically examine this issue in a public forum. We believe that by exposing the terrible injustice and exploitation in the fashion industry's supply chain, we can begin to change the conditions for these women, so that they will be able to do their jobs with authority, dignity and creativity.
Those of us involved in this project have all seen how life’s tapestry is woven through fabrics, models and outfits that stifle women, bind and restrict our bodies. That’s why we continue to resist —so that we can be the ones to create the aesthetics of our own existence, with equality, justice, and the freedom to be who we are and who we want to be."
“Feminine aesthetics, starting with the wardrobe, are set by men who dictate the trends and profit handsomely from it”.