Thanks to the pandemic, many of us now know both the benefits and the dangers of working from home.
It’s an old hat in the clothing industry: For decades the Australian fashion industry relied on the work of outside workers who sewed in their living rooms, kitchens and sheds. This hidden workforce is mainly made up of new migrants who pick up orders by word of mouth.
For Emma Do, a fashion editor who has worked for Frankie and Broadsheet, it was an eye opener to discover Vietnamese names and faces behind many well-known brands.
âI was like, wow, are Asians all the rage in Australia? She remembers. “I was just used to seeing white designers being the face of everything.”
As she learned more about outdoor work, she began to piece together memories. She remembers how her best friend in college gave her a free Sass & Bide t-shirt, because in the mid-2000s while her friend was in high school, her great aunt sewed them as an outside worker for the brand. (Sass & Bide were subsequently acquired by Myer and list their current manufacturing and sourcing policies online).
During the lockdown, Do partnered with illustrator Kim Lam to create Working From Home, or may á» nhÃ , a non-fictional graphic narrative book exploring the stories of Vietnamese workers past and present. Supported by the Australian Council for the Arts, the book launched in April 2021 with a limited edition. It is already in its third edition.
Lam’s parents both worked in textile factories, and she was often looked after by outside workers as they grew up. She remembers the smell of machine oil, cold rooms with concrete or tiled floors (so it was easier to sweep away loose fibers), with SBS Vietnamese or Paris by Night in the background. Once she hit her head and an aunt pressed her cold sewing scissors to her forehead instead of an ice pack.
A chronology of the work of the Australian garment industry based on the graphic novel by Emma Do and Kim Lam.
For many new migrants, especially women, working from home offers an opportunity to earn money while juggling parental and family responsibilities. Often, work becomes a family affair.
âMy husband helped, and even my daughter helped trim,â recalls Nguyet Nguyen, who worked from home as a machinist for over 20 years, starting in the late 1980s when her daughter was little. She had learned to sew in Vietnam and she did not want to send her daughter to daycare.
Now an organizer of the textile, clothing and footwear industry within the manufacturing division of CFMEU, Nguyet has participated in the historic changes in the industry which have improved the conditions of homeworkers.
Instead of being paid piecework as contractors, Australian outside workers are entitled to hourly rates based on clothing estimate, as well as superannuation, sick leave, annual leave and all other award conditions received by on-site employees.
This significant victory came in 2012 and could perhaps be a lesson for today’s odd-job economy: the food delivery industry has recently been in the spotlight, accused of exploiting the migrant workers classified as entrepreneurs; on farms, reports indicate that piecework has saved some workers less than $ 2 an hour.
âOur industry was one of the first to experience fictitious contracts,â says Beth Macpherson, CFMEU’s national compliance manager for textiles, clothing and footwear. “I hope the structure we have developed is something that other industries can build on.”
Stories of Vietnamese garment workers in Australia. Photography: Emma Do and Kim Lam
Despite these major changes to the price of the textile industry, Macpherson says illegal and exploitative practices sometimes make
persist. âCompanies know they are doing the wrong thing, but they think no one will ever know because the worker is in hiding and does not speak English. “
Union organizers are encouraging local businesses to undergo audit and accreditation through Ethical Clothing Australia to show they are committed to paying and treating workers fairly. Internationally, labor rights advocates are urging big brands to re-engage in binding agreements such as the Bangladesh Accord, which is due to expire at the end of August.
For Do and Lam, it is important to draw attention to labor rights, but also to stress that exploitation is not the only story. While many of their outside workers interviewed were modest in their accomplishments, they were also proud of their skills, stoicism, and contribution to fashion.
âThere is dignity in being able to do something out of nothing,â says Lam.
If there’s one thing she would like fashion lovers to remember, it’s that every piece of clothing is the result of human labor.
âAll the clothes are handmade. They are not produced by machines. They are all made by one person – even the ones from Kmart.