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Story Publication logo September 2, 2023

The Fashion Industry as a Safe Haven for Women



There has been a long and ongoing history of exploitation in the garment industry. This solutions...


A view of the garment workers inside Progetto Quid's production site. Image by Brittany Klintworth. Italy, 2023.

Located in the picturesque city renowned as the place Romeo and Juliet fell in love is a little garment factory where one would least expect it. Less than five miles from Juliet’s house, tucked away down a winding road with scenic greenery and open fields on one side and charming buildings on the other, is Progetto Quid.

The hum of cicadas outside is replaced by the hum of around 50 workers at sewing machines, while standing fans and forced air coming through the vents provide relief from the sweltering summer heat. Shelves lined up against the wall display boxes filled with heaps of colorful threads and piles of printed fabrics—tie-dye, plaid, and houndstooth. 

Progetto Quid releases small, limited-edition clothing collections. As a sustainable and ethical nonprofit social cooperative, the company uses excess fabrics that are either donated to them or purchased for a discounted price from brands that would have otherwise discarded the material. The company is eco-friendly, and it’s also trying to be a force of good in the garment industry by placing a special emphasis on workers’ rights. 

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Worldwide, about 60% of garment workers are women, and in some areas, that number jumps to almost 80%. Progetto Quid offers jobs and training opportunities to people who face discrimination in the labor market, with a focus on women. Their workforce includes formerly incarcerated people, migrants, recovering addicts, and those close to retirement age. The company aims to go beyond solely offering job opportunities. Part of its mission is to create community and provide aid with issues beyond the workplace. 

Anna Fiscale founded Progetto Quid in 2012 and is president of the organization. “I was very much focused on women empowerment since I was a child,” she said while sitting in a tidy office decorated with potted orchids and paintings of colorful imagery. The blinds were pulled down just enough to keep out the heat of the blazing sun but let a bit of the light inside. Fiscale wore a v-neck dress with a pattern of colorful long-tailed monkeys. She had a calm demeanor, a warm smile, and bright eyes. Her brown curly hair sat above her collar bone, with the top half pulled back loosely.

“I was interested in ways to help the society and help fragile people to start something and empower themselves,” she explained. 

As a kid, Fiscale enjoyed personalizing her jeans and other items in any way she could, including painting the fabric. In college, she studied economics and traveled to India and Haiti with an organization that worked with women to build income-generating activities.

“So, once I graduated, I thought ‘Okay, I would love to create something that can leave a sign, and I want to start from my own city, from Verona," Fiscale said. "I thought, I want to work with leftover [fabrics], and I want to work with fragile women.” 

Progetto Quid says 40% of its employees are migrants, and the majority of those migrant workers are women. An on-site welfare officer helps employees find housing, open a bank account, and navigate the asylum permit process, among other things. This is especially helpful as many of their employees speak little to no Italian.

Progetto Quid’s typical customers are women between the ages of 25 and 45. They sell workwear items such as blazers, trousers, and blouses, with casual options available in the form of sundresses, shorts, and tank tops in a range of eclectic prints. Clothing is priced between around 20 euro for basic garments to 150 euro for items such as coats. The price point is intentional—Progetto Quid wants the clothing to be accessible to customers who want to shop ethically. 

80% of its 144 employees are women, the company says, and that the majority of its staff work in production. Progetto Quid has built schedules that are mom-friendly. The garments workers' shifts are Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm. The company opted for a 30-minute lunch break so the workers could go home early. Additionally, the garment workers have a 10-minute break in the morning and one in the afternoon.

While this work schedule sounds quite normal, it is not always the case for garment workers in developing countries and sometimes in Western countries as well. Many work in factories that have large orders to fulfill and short turnaround times. This can lead to long work days with fewer days off and overtime that sometimes goes uncompensated. 

Brands that have lots of orders to fill and not enough workers sometimes outsource labor to factories in different countries. And due to a lack of regulations in other countries and little to no protections for garment workers, these brands often pay exceedingly low wages. Progetto Quid only has one garment factory, and they have a unique approach to fulfilling orders they can’t complete on their own. 

“We work together with other social cooperatives in the northern center of Italy,” Fiscale said, “and when we aren’t able to produce because we are already full, we activate this kind of district with other five social cooperatives.” The cooperatives are smaller, Fiscale notes, but they have “the same values as Quid.” 

The approach isn’t foolproof. Sometimes, when Progetto Quid partners with companies that “decide to share the same values,” Fiscale said, issues can arise. “Very often, there is kind of a fight for the price,” she explained, “because they want to pay us as they were in India or in China, and so they want the social values, but at the same price as they find it in China, so it is sometimes quite frustrating to deal with that.”

The situation is not uncommon. In one instance, an unnamed global brand was vocal about paying a living wage to workers, and they outsourced their labor. When they were told how much they would need to pay for it to be on par with that standard, the brand said it was unrealistic. 

Progetto Quid says the network it has built with social cooperatives including Palingen and Il Filo Colorato, which both have a focus on helping vulnerable women, has been successful. Fiscale has ambitions to expand from working with five cooperatives to as many as 20 or 30. “Because at a certain point, we won’t be able to create more job opportunities here, the idea is to find other places to create impact,” she said. 

More Than a Workplace

Vanessa Cento is a communications officer with Progetto Quid. “Our goal is a social one,” she said.

In her office, the desk is stacked with binders. Cento wore thick-rimmed glasses, a soft cream tank top layered with necklaces, paired with bright patterned pants, and polished nails to match. She was animated and passionate when she spoke: “The goal is to continue to offer job opportunities and career opportunities for people who struggle, to have a second chance, you know, or in some cases also, a first chance.”

For some, she said, Progetto Quid is their first job experience. Employees range in age from 19 to 67. 

“So you see, the focus is very specific,” she explained, “because we also noticed that, in our experience, at least, migrant women are a specific target in a sense, especially migrant women with lower formal skills . . . [who are] the most discriminated [against in] the labor market.”

Labor abuses can be exacerbated for workers who don't have the same protections that citizens receive, or who work in a country without any protections in place. Globally, garment factory employees work excessive hours, receive poverty wages, and endure abuse, and women often face sexual harassment

Migrant women deal with the duality of having two marginalized identities. “They are not seen, ” Cento said. “First, because they’re women. Second, because they’re migrant women, and so they are, in a certain sense, completely not seen on the labor market.”

Cento went on to explain that even if a migrant has earned a degree in their home country, it isn’t recognized in Italy, so they have to essentially start over, which very often leads to them doing household or undeclared work. Working under the table doesn't offer benefits like retirement or paid time off. Workers are not guaranteed the standard minimum wage, and they don’t have the protection that being a contracted worker offers, which means they can be fired at any time. According to Cento, Progetto Quid aims to nurture lifelong learning with its training opportunities to give its employees skills to thrive at work, but also to develop self-confidence and a sense of belonging. 

At the end of 2022, Progetto Quid had 58 migrant employees of 22 different nationalities, according to Cento. She credits the diverse workforce they’ve established with making the brand better. “That’s also the power, you know, of this type of work environment,” Cento said. “The high rate of diversity is something that is always pushing you to find innovative solutions because there are some things that you – and it’s not a cultural bias, it’s just that you don’t think about that type of solution because you’re not used to it.” She added, “For us, that’s a very powerful richness.” 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Progetto Quid was concerned not only about the economic impact their garment workers would face (they remedied this by creating and selling face masks so employees could return to work and generate income), but also for their mental health. “For us, the concern was also in terms of psychological impact because we have 70% of employees who have vulnerabilities,” Cento explained. “This means that in some cases, they maybe are alone, or the pandemic could, you know, in a certain sense, have this effect on them.”

Cento noted that the pandemic also brought about another massive change. “At one point, everything shifted to digital services,” she said. “For younger people, it’s not that bad. You can access services through your phone, and everything is quite okay. You have to just fill in a form and everything will work out, but for people who have, for example, very low digital skills, or they don’t understand the language, it’s very complicated.” 

Staying true to their mission of providing their employees with resources beyond the job, Progetto Quid’s welfare officer recorded video tutorials to show employees how to use these new digital platforms to do things like contact their doctors or receive bonuses that became available during the pandemic. 

Progetto Quid also provides a free psychologist for the employees, three to four times per month. During the pandemic, the psychologist was available for online support, but she is now back in person. The company’s welfare program also offers on-the-job training where the employees are shadowed by a trainer. 

Evaluating the Industry 

Progetto Quid abides by Italian minimum wage laws, and Fiscale says many of their garment workers receive above minimum wage. But according to Aruna Kashyap, associate director for the economic justice and rights division at Human Rights Watch, “low wages continue to be a problem in the industry.” Additionally, Kashyap notes that workers face barriers when attempting to unionize and bargain for better wages. 

Just a few months ago, in June, a union leader was murdered in Bangladesh after fighting for garment workers to receive back pay. Forty-five-year-old Shahidul Islam was beaten severely and pronounced dead at the hospital. 

Bangladeshi garment workers are no strangers to tragedy. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory was the deadliest garment factory event in history, killing over 1,100 people and injuring more than 2,500. Structural cracks were discovered the day before the collapse, and many of the workers expressed safety concerns, but factory workers felt pressured to go to work the day of the accident. 

“Companies can source from anywhere,” Kashyap said during a Zoom interview. “There are hardly any laws compelling companies to operate in a way that respects human rights or labor standards or the environmental standards in their supply chains. And that’s a huge challenge because companies sourcing across multiple countries can just go from one so-called ‘cheap destination,’ where labor laws are lax or minimum wages are lower, to another ‘cheap destination.’” 

Kashyap noted the role that power imbalances play in the industry. Brands are at the top of the power pyramid, with suppliers underneath them, and workers at the bottom.

“We need national legislation to be robust in the production countries, but we also need supply chain related regulations to be robust in big consumer markets as well as markets where brands are headquartered or operating in.” Kashyap said. “Those are the regulatory vacuums which make it very difficult to make structural improvements in the entire industry.” 

Vulnerable people often bear the brunt of exploitation. Rather than taking advantage of them, Progetto Quid hires them. 

Looking for Solutions: Better Scrutiny and Robust Legislation 

According to Kashyap, “The [European Union] is currently negotiating the corporate sustainability due diligence directive. It hasn’t yet been adopted; it's in the final rounds of negotiations.” She added, “But the hope is that that kind of legislation will drive greater and better scrutiny of companies and we don’t depend on companies to voluntarily do the right thing.

“Having robust legislation in place requiring all brands and retailers to respect labor rights standards in their global value chains is definitely going to be a force for improvement,” Kashyap said. “But having said that, having laws on paper is not going to substantially bring improvements if those laws are not enforced by regulators and courts.” 

In the meantime, organizations like Clean Clothes Campaign and Fair Wear Foundation continue to fight for legislation to protect garment workers. And Progetto Quid continues its effort to create clothing in a way that doesn’t harm the people who actually make it. Fiscale wishes to go above the bare minimum. “We try not only to offer [our employees] a job,” she said, “but also to offer them ways to empower themselves.”


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