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Students talk sweatshops with designer

Fashion designer Sujeet Sennik had something to show Duke of Connaught students last month – a dusty T-shirt picked from the rubble of Rana Plaza, Bangladesh.

Fashion designer Sujeet Sennik tells Grade 7 and 8 students in Danielle Astor’s class at Duke of Connaught about the garment workers he met in Bangladesh after the collapse of Rana Plaza. Astor’s class has already designed four shirts for an upcoming spring fashion show called The Factory by Child Labour, which will raise public awareness about  poor working conditions in the garment industry. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Fashion designer Sujeet Sennik tells Grade 7 and 8 students in Danielle Astor’s class at Duke of Connaught about the garment workers he met in Bangladesh after the collapse of Rana Plaza. Astor’s class has already designed four shirts for an upcoming spring fashion show called The Factory by Child Labour, which will raise public awareness about poor working conditions in the garment industry.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Sennik left a design position at Walmart after the poorly built Rana Plaza factory collapsed in April, killing 1,129 workers. Walmart was linked to the factory by illegal subcontracts.

He has since quit his job, breaking design to speak out against the sub-standard work conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

“Everything that you’re wearing right now has passed through somebody’s hands,” Sennik told the students before passing the Rana Plaza T-shirt around the class. “It’s really important to know that. It doesn’t just come out of a factory – it takes a lot of work, and a lot of time.”

Teacher Danielle Astor said her class of Grade 7 and 8 students asked to meet Sennik after seeing him in the CBC documentary “Made in Bangladesh.”

This spring, Astor’s class will launch its own fashion show to raise awareness about the plight of garment workers. Made in Bangladesh @ Duke of Connaught-8129

So far they have designed four T-shirts, screened with images and messages such as “Why is fair so rare?”

But before they launch, the class has to answer several questions, starting with a basic one – where should they get their T-shirts?

Sennik surprised some in the class when he rejected the idea of boycotting Bangladesh-made clothing, and buying T-shirts made in Canada instead.

“You should be proud to wear a T-shirt made in Bangladesh,” he said. “The people who make it are very proud of what they do.”

Bangladesh is home to some 5,000 clothing factories, and textiles make up more than three-quarters of the country’s exports and 17 per cent of its GDP.

Labour standards have to change, Sennik said, but it’s vital that Bangladeshi garment workers keep their jobs.

Sennik grew up in Canada, where his Grade 9 Spanish teacher suggested fashion design after seeing his cartoons in a language exercise.

After studying fashion design in Paris in the 1980s and working his way from fashion houses such as Christian Dior to senior design positions at Balenciaga and Hudson’s Bay, Sennik traveled to nearly every continent.

Students asked Sennik mostly about what he saw in Bangladesh, and the movement to help workers. But they also asked a personal question – what is his New Year’s Resolution?

After talking to Kalpona Akter, a former child labourer turned activist, he said his resolution is not to feel guilty.

“She kind of told me that guilt doesn’t help,” he said. It’s better to do something, like you guys are doing, and not feel guilty. It get things done.”

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