Since the brutal crackdowns on Cambodian garment worker protests in January, the media attention has been dominated with stories of the exploitation and violence that these workers, mostly women, face daily. What’s missing are the stories of how so many of these women are so often finding the bravery and ingenuity to stand up to this oppression. That’s why the recent garment worker event, “Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality” was so amazing to see.
Following the crackdowns and the reaction to it, a group of women from the United Sisterhood Alliance decided they wanted a new way to draw attention to the workers’ struggle; something different where workers could express for themselves what was really going on. They decided on a fashion show where workers would model the brand-name clothes they make everyday in the factories, but they’d do it with a very clear message to the brands – stop the violence, stop the exploitation, and pay a decent wage. The show weaved together fashion, dance, music, and performance art; at one point men dressed in makeshift ‘Joe Fresh’ riot gear took to the catwalk before reenacting January’s violent crackdown and the death of a worker on stage.
The event may have seemed like a harmless way for the women to express themselves, but when you’re standing up for yourself, even a fashion show has its risks. A few of the organisers actually missed the majority of the show, as they were outside negotiating with police to allow the event to continue. Thankfully it was allowed to go on, as many of the workers had given up a few of their evenings to rehearse – coming to the venue straight from their shift at the factory and sleeping there overnight. It seems like whenever these workers make a gain, something new gets thrown at them, but it’s the organisers’ hope that as more women see their coworkers at events like these, more and more will be willing to speak up about the ugly reality they face.