The world could no longer look away from the atrocities caused by sweatshop after a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed over 1,000 people in April 2013. Since then, explosive stories have come out about the damage caused by factories in India and The Rana Plaza collapse directly inspired the documentary The True Cost to pull back the curtain on the industry. However, even a tragedy this colossal wasn’t able to dissuade companies that work with factories that abuse people who ask for higher wages or expose them to toxic materials to this day.
Shivam Punjya, founder of the brand benho, was inspired to create his ethical label in the wake of the factory collapse in Bangladesh. “That hit a nerve with me,” Punjya told Complex. “And talking to my family, my dad told me, 'Stop whining. If you have an issue with what happened in Bangladesh jump in and do something about it.'”
In an ongoing effort to raise awareness around this issue, Punjya launched the Garment Worker Project. The project comes at the problem of worker abuse from multiple angles—emotionally evocative art, irresistible human stories, and invaluable access to celebrities—and throws it all together in hopes of creating real change.
The Garment Worker Project is the efforts of Punjya, photographer Dan Smith, and filmmaker Kent Mathews. The trio traveled to India to shoot powerful portraits of the garment workers who are employed at MSA Ethos, an ethical factory located in Gujarat, India. “I wanted to do something to elucidate their lives to a broader audience because 20 people touched this blazer before I bought it," Punjya said. “And who are these 20 people, and where do they come from, and what do they do?” The black-and-white pictures are accompanied by the workers’ stories and the challenges they’ve had to overcome.
Kalpana is a line leader who was had “her arm torn into several pieces” by a crocodile. Bhavesh, who lost his leg at only 10 due to an electric shock, manages the cutting department. Punjya said a pregnant woman named Dharminshta who was so happy to have access to prenatal care through MSA Ethos especially touched him.
Behno helps support MSA Ethos, but the parties involved understand that real change is brought about by a real desire for the greater culture to change. Celebrity stylist Micaela Erlanger, who works with the likes of Lupita Nyong'o and Jared Leto, said she can see a shift in how her clientele approaches the issue. “I certainly think there's a conversation happening right now and I hear about it more frequently in conversations with clients and conversations with designers,” Erlanger told Complex. But she doesn’t think you need to be seen on the red carpet to make a difference. “I think anybody with a voice can have an impact,” she said.
The photographs were sold at a silent auction at Sotheby’s this week, with proceeds going to Labour Behind the Label.