You Gotta Fight for Your Rights – Frock Paper Scissors
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You Gotta Fight for Your Rights

By Tess Magill

Illustration: Jasmin McDougall

Young Australians are still experiencing discrimination while working in the fashion industry. How can we create a better working environment now and for future workers?

Finding a dream job is like finding the perfect pair of fitted jeans; impossible for some, easier for others. In 2018 many young Australians are trying to find their perfect fit in the fashion industry and are often left feeling overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated by their employees.

A recent report from the Human Rights Commission states that they received over 14, 911 complaints in 2016 & 2017, which included cases of harassment, bullying, and racism. Although the report doesn’t show which industry is most accountable, real-life accounts from young fashion workers in Brisbane suggest that negative behaviour in the fashion workplace is an ongoing problem.

Head designer at Austgrow International, Katrina Gaskin says that she has experienced first-hand workplace bullying and harassment in her fashion career. It began with her first job out of university where Ms Gaskin worked as a design assistant within a well-known active and wellness brand. Ms Gaskin graduated from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in 2012 and said that “I quickly learned that fashion industry is known for being a tough industry with high expectations. I have experienced bullying, manipulation, being underpaid and overworked.” Ms Gaskin says the company (whom she will not name) are notorious for a high staff turnover due to workplace bullying and poor culture. While working there she often experienced discrimination over her age and gender. “The gender discrimination was cultural and generation based I believe,” she says. “I was laughed at and refused a pay rise by my male boss, based on the fact he believed I was the ‘right age’ to be thinking about kids and marriage…I was twenty-five at the time”, she says.

Ms Gaskin adds that she was more qualified than most of her colleagues at the time, which isn’t uncommon in the fashion industry. A 2017 industry report by Throsby and Petetskaya found that whilst the average female is more educated than her male colleagues, she still earns less. Ms Gaskin says she ended up leaving the company after 1.5 years along with four other colleagues. “It was a difficult decision to leave the company, though we had no other choice”. She now works at Austgrow international, a company based in Melbourne who is known for using sustainable fabrics. Ms Gaskin is happier now in her current role where she works with mostly men. “Most of the males I work with now are respectful, fun, and lighthearted and focused on creating a good culture.” She stated that although there have been some stressful times, she is not afraid to speak up or against her male colleagues like she was before.

In a similar case to Ms Gaskin, a recent fashion graduate Alexander Stokes who completed her bachelor of Fashion Design in 2017, used her time while studying to intern for brands such as Alice Nightingale, Camilla and Nico. “Since graduating, I have found the industry to be competitive and can’t count how many times I got rejected”. She added that when interning you often have to work for free, which can occasionally feel like you are not valued and sometimes overworked. Ms Stokes says that since surrounding herself with positive influences at work and by choosing companies that have similar values to her, she has found it easier to “speak up”. She says that by just starting a conversation with your employer is the right step to solving issues you may be having.

Not only are women facing gender discrimination while working in fashion, but men in the industry are too. After graduating from QUT with a Masters in Design, Alfie Lee has spoken out about some of the discrimination he has received since graduating and applying for entry-level positions. “I left Hong Kong to study and live in Brisbane in 2008. I chose to study at QUT because they had a great creative program and I knew I would love it,” he says. However, Lee has found it hard to find full-time work in Brisbane.  The Australia Bureau of Statistics data shows that, for many students, working while studying is essential. Mr Lee, like many other exchange students, worked in retail while completing his degree. It was here that he felt he was struggling. “I am not sure whether it is because English is my second language or because I do not have much experience it was hard”. He says that where he is currently interning have been “more accepting of me and my background, but other places, not so much”, he says.

No matter what age, gender or race, society still seems to be stagnant when it comes to treating each other fairly in the workplace. For this to change, a conversation between friends, coworkers, and bosses is the first step in combating this issue. By starting the conversation and educating young people, we should be able to change our outlook on acceptable behaviour in the workplace especially when working in the in the world of fashion.