Lulù loves his job and is a terrific hard worker, that’s why the company’s owner respects him and his colleagues hate him, but an accident soon transforms Lulù into a union’s supporter, prompting him to join extremist workers’ groups.
The film may look dated today, but it still has a few things to teach us when it comes to the conditions of workers, the dull and alienating factory rhythms and the role of the unions in today's labour market.
Today it's International Workers' Day (or May Day) and I'm wondering what has the fashion industry got to celebrate at the moment (check out the second picture in this post - it portrays garment workers parading on May Day in New York in 1916 - then ask yourself, "would it still be possible in 2012? and how many garment workers are there left in New York?").
Despite being a money-making machine, fashion represents today one of most exploitative industries around. Its pyramid-like structure includes many levels of exploitation, from unpaid interns at fashion/style publications and unpaid models at fashion week events to low paid workers in sweatshops producing the fast fashion items we consume everyday.
Yet there is also the other dark side of fashion, with overpaid models, editors, designers and fashion conglomerates CEOs living a life of luxury, with the occasional designer suffering a nervous breakdown for work-related pressures or for the revolving door system based on the “hire/fire as soon as you realise that particular designer may be/may not be a cash cow” principle.
On a psychologically daunting level, we must also take into consideration the hordes of frustrated journalists scattered a bit all over the world: in America a fashion journalist and critic (think about Robin Givhan) can still win the Pulitzer Prize; in Europe even so-called trendy and cool independent publications ask you to preferably write just 400 words on a fashion-related topic because people don’t read anymore and female readers are anyway interested only in make-up and shoes.
The fashion industry currently feeds on two things, money and lies: giving the perception that everything is fine and that you’re part of a wonderful moveable feast is the main trick.
British publications are usually very enthusiastic about the local fashion industry and rarely write negative reports about British companies, but ten days ago Harold Tillman sold Jaeger and Aquascutum to pay off his debts.
Steve Madden, owner of Betsey Johnson’s intellectual property rights since 2010, may be claiming that the brand is stronger and thriving, but, just a few days ago, Betsey Johnson declared bankruptcy and, as a result of that, 350 employees will lose their jobs and the brand will close 63 stores.
In a way there is a rather wide gap between the reality and an imaginary dreamy world: on the surface everything is perfect, between catwalk shows, presentations, parties and co-optation of high profile trendy bloggers, but, behind the scenes, there is an entirely different story involving fluctuating sales, losses and a desperate need for attention (consider this: in Italy most fashion houses and designers perfectly know that Milan Fashion Week is an alienating event for most local people, so, during Design Week, fashion houses desperately try to mend things by creating pieces of furniture and opening their events and cocktails to more ordinary people…).
As stated earlier on, there are different levels in the fashion industry, and in between the designers who are keen to keep on creating and the entrepreneurs and the industrialists who are keen to do business, there are the workers.
Many Italian companies decided for example to relocate abroad, in countries where the cost of labour is cheaper.
Over the last few years reports often appeared on the Internet about the vicissitudes of the Golden Lady factory workers. A hosiery manufacturer founded in the mid-to-late ‘60s, Golden Lady also owns other famous brands such as Omsa and Philippe Matignon.
In 2010 the company closed the Faenza-based Omsa factory to move the production to Serbia. The workers were laid off and began collecting unemployment benefits.
Little by little the workers' fight took new forms: they made themselves heard via social networks, a theatrical performance in the streets of many Italian towns and a documentary, “Licenziata!” (Fired!), directed by Lisa Tormeni. Then, last December, 240 workers (all of them women) were fired.
The Gissi-based Golden Lady factory also closed down last year, firing all its workers (who are still organising protests – note: most of them are women also in this case). The conditions of these workers is perfectly highlighted in Tormeni’s documentary by an Omsa worker who states: “If you’re out of job you’re nobody, you don’t count anymore” (check out the embedded extract of the documentary in this post – it’s in Italian with some parts in French).
There is currently one prominent success story in the fashion news: on their debut, the shares of Brunello Cucinelli - accompanied by his “holy” Board of Directors - are already soaring. So maybe the Umbrian entrepreneur did the right thing turning to divine intervention, a miracle may indeed be the only solution to the complex labour issues we’re all going through. That said, if every now and then some publications would leave behind the most glamorous and superficial aspects of fashion to look at labour conditions and in particular at women working/losing their jobs in the fashion industry, the miracle would already start.
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