As one of the academics most engaged in studying Better Work’s data, it’s just as well labour economist Drusilla Brown likes working with numbers. Professor Brown began her collaboration with Better Work in 2007, contributing her vast repertoire of work into the garment industry, the role of labour standards in international trade and research focused on child labour.
For its Voices from the Supply Chain series, Better Work spoke to Drusilla in her faculty office at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where she explained why Jordan is a great example of what can happen when everyone works together to improve conditions.
1. What does a typical day of work look like for you?
Firstly, I bike to work. If it’s summer, I start with some student stuff, e-mails, and the rest of the day I spend running statistical regressions, writing papers, carrying out analysis, sometimes meeting with research assistants and then I bike home. During the academic year, I teach two days a week. The most recent time I did field work was last August, so I occasionally travel for work but much less than I used to.
2. What is the best thing about your job? And the worst?
The best thing about my job as an analytical thinker is that I like carrying out statistical analysis, and trying to figure things out, but I have also met some amazing people around the world, and I think that has really changed my perspective about the world and human beings. No one in particular stands out, I have worked with country programme directors, factory managers, supervisors, workers and ILO staff from all over the world. Also, there is something about the universal cuteness of kids, you discover we have way more in common than we have differences. The jet lag is certainly the worst part of my job.
3. What positive changes in the way the garment industry operates have you seen during your career?
The changes have been huge, I often point to Jordan as an extraordinary example of change. They basically went from a situation in which we heard about people being abused physically, sexually and emotionally. It’s not that working in these factories isn’t still hard, there are still instances of verbal abuse and long hours, but workers are much less likely to be physically abused or sexually harassed. These things haven’t gone away, but the really horrible abuses, I think, have greatly diminished. Other countries weren’t anywhere near as bad when we started out, but you see all kinds of improvements, as the range of issues that are concerning for workers has declined, wages are up, hours are down, grievance mechanisms for expressing themselves, and the jobs are safer. What happened in Jordan was a combination of a fear of losing trade preferences with the United States and Better Work was hugely instrumental. When you look at Jordan you see the power of trade; huge improvements, due to an effective project manager, in working conditions; and industry leaders who decided they want to change the nature of their industry. The government and unions were instrumental, plus international buyers are important because of the pressure they are getting from consumers.
4. If you could change one thing about the fashion industry, what would it be?
I think the biggest thing is that factory managers need to realize that their workers are human beings. When factories see workers as human beings, they are more able to process information about them, and are more likely to choose to be compliant. When you process someone as a human being instead of an object, suddenly you can think about what it means to go to bed hungry, what it means to be yelled at or humiliated and I think it puts them in a different place in terms of what they think they are trying to accomplish as managers.
5. How do you think the fashion industry will evolve over the next ten years?
Everyone says automation, but I’m not so sure. I think the biggest open question is whether we are going to see an improvement just in an upper tier selection of factories, or improvement down the chain. I think as we see the industry expanding into Africa, the hope is that we will do it differently than we did everywhere else, so maybe we will, but it’s hard to make any kind of prediction about where things will go.
6. Has your work with the fashion industry influenced the way you choose and buy clothes?
The problem is I don’t know how to behave as a consumer. I know that it is important for international buyers to be afraid of me, but I also think that when they change their behaviour and they try to improve working conditions, they should be rewarded. What gets me most is when I look at a garment and I see which country it is from. I wonder whether the worker who made that piece of clothing was in our study, whether we have surveyed her and she has told us what her life is like.
7. What is your favourite item of clothing? Can you describe it to us and tell us what makes it special?
I have a red matte jacket, and the reason it’s my favourite is because my husband gave it to me.
9. What are your personal ambitions for the future?
As I get closer and closer to retirement, I want to feel that I have been a good mother, wife, teacher and that I have contributed to science.