Photograph by COVETEUR / Trunk Archive.

Hoda Katebi’s Mission to Abolish Sweatshops

The community organizer is the founder of Blue Tin Production, an apparel manufacturing co-operative run by immigrant, refugee, and working-class women of color. Together, they’re setting the tone for what an equitable fashion system could be.

As of 2020, the top 15 richest people in fashion have accumulated a combined net worth of over $442 billion. Within that very same system, over 98%of workers, primarily those on the manufacturing end of the supply chain, receive less than minimum wage. Meanwhile, on factory floors, eight in 10 garment workers said they have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment and violence, according to a survey by ActionAid. And 1 in 10 said they are currently experiencing sexual harrasstmant while at work.


None of this is news to Chicago-based community organizer Hoda Katebi. In fact, the destructive and exploitative reality of the fashion industry and its impact on garment workers is what drove Katebi to launch Blue Tin Production, an apparel manufacturing workers co-operative run by immigrant, refugee, and working-class women of color, in January of 2019. “It’s because another world is possible,” she said.


At Blue Tin, power and ownership are equally distributed among co-operative members. This means profits are shared, decisions on issues like wages and waste management are made collectively, partnerships with clients are formed without subcontractors, and the role of production lead rotates among members. The co-operative also offers all members access to healthcare (physical and mental), social services, and childcare.


Below, Atmos speaks with Katebi about creating an ethical, and scalable, manufacturing blueprint as part of her mission to abolish sweatshops.


Looking back to your early years, what informed your decision to go into social justice work?


I faced a lot of bullying in the schools I attended growing up in Oklahoma. Fighting back was what first forced me to learn about social justice issues—to help me apply or sustain an argument. People of color are politicized when they live in countries like the U.S. or the U.K. Narratives are pushed on us from a very young age by the structural violence that’s happening against us and our families. And people respond to different situations in different ways.


My reaction included starting JooJoo Azad—an anti-capitalist, intersectional feminist, political fashion blog—in August of 2012. It was shortly after I’d moved from Oklahoma to Chicago, a transition that made me reconsider the levels of violence I had normalized growing up. For example, that the way we dress can impact us being the recipients of hate and interpersonal conflict. If I wore a scarf around my neck instead of around my head, I wouldn’t be called a terrorist and cars wouldn’t pretend to run me over in the street because I’m visibly Muslim.


But the trigger that catalyzed JooJoo Azad was that in June of 2012, a Muslim woman in France was subjected to a hate attack. She was pregnant and she lost her baby. That really struck a very deep chord with me. I remember yelling into my pillow. It was shortly after that incident that I decided to start yelling online instead as a way to take up space and claim my agency.


And how did JooJoo Azad then lay the groundwork for the creation of Blue Tin Production in 2019?


So, I founded Blue Tin Production solely through word of mouth. I went to a bunch of immigrant centers, refugee resettlement organizations, and domestic violence centers (they are allorganizations I had built relationships with over the years),and told them: I want to open a co-op—if anybody wants to be a part of it, take a sewing test, and explore this idea with me, come on this date.


I also put up flyers with my personal phone number everywhere. And my friends did too, in case people needed to speak Spanish or Arabic. On the day of the sewing test, we thought maybe 20 people would show up, but over a hundred women speaking around 14 different languages came. There were kids running around everywhere. All of our machines—bar one–broke down. It was quite a day.


At the time, I was paying people out of my pocket to come to this meeting. We also had childcare next door. And there was no buy-in to join Blue Tin. Your buy-in would be the work that you’re contributing to the co-op. Then, the first several months were spent talking and asking questions like: What are your financial needs? What are your bills? What do you have to pay every month? That helped us determine what the salary should be. In this sense, Blue Tin was very much built from the inside out. The co-op’s structures were based on specific needs that the people in our space were putting forward in order to live and grow financially. We didn’t adopt any starting points. We, quite literally, built this space for every single member of Blue Tin.

“Blue Tin was very much built from the inside out. We didn’t adopt any starting points. We, quite literally, built this space for every single member.”

Hoda Katebi


How have the last three years been? And what have the collective decision-making processes looked like in practice on a day-to-day level?


It was hard to begin with because all of us had to unlearn internalized hierarchy. For example, in the space we were using during the first week, there was this big executive chair and a bunch of random, uncomfortable chairs. And everyone sat down around the big executive chair expecting me to sit in it. I was like, Why would I sit in it? You sit in the chair. They replied, I’m not the boss. And I was like, I’m not the boss either! We decided to ceremoniously move the executive chair out of the studio.


I thought our main issues would be finding clients and securing income. But that wasn’t the case. The hardest past has been interpersonal work. The soft, intangible skills you can’t measure on a grant application. What’s been really challenging is bringing together people who have been at the epicenter of layers and layers of violence into one room that’s at the bottom of the supply chain in a racist and extractive system. And then trying to build a world that they want on their terms? That’s hard. We don’t live in isolation. We live in a capitalist world. In fact, we’re living in Chicago, a city that’s giving Covid-19 money to the police. We have to live with the realities of wealth accumulation and lack thereof. We have to navigate where money exists and where it doesn’t, and address questions like: Why are these price points so unreasonable for designers? It’s because they’re used to sweatshops.


But then on good days, Blue Tin is so good. I could not imagine doing anything else. We experience liberation, even if it’s just for a few hours in the studio. We’re working towards leveling out the intensity in order to arrive at a very stable center, so we can build this model out and replicate it at scale. We want to fine-tune Blue Tin so it can be used as a case study that can be shared with the masses who can learn from what we’re doing.

“On good days, Blue Tin is so good. We experience liberation, even if it’s just for a few hours in the studio.”

Hoda Katebi


Blue Tin is an abolitionist organization—can you talk a bit about what that means on both an ideological and a practical level?


Yes, at Blue Tin we are applying both a historic abolitionist lens against slavery and a current-day abolitionist lens against policing, prisons, and systems that require violence to function. Fast fashion is that for us. For a variety of reasons, including sexism, the fashion industry seems silly, vacuous, and frivolous. But, at its core, it’s built on violence. That’s partly why I’m so focused on this very molecular level of fashion supply chains.


Sweatshops exist within a prison system. In countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Cambodia, garment workers on strikes are faced with military or militarized police, not local police. Meanwhile, so many garment workers are migrant workers or women of color. They’re working class women of color. They’re mothers. They’re domestic violence survivors—so much sexual assault happens on production factory floors. And these factories pay low wages because of ongoing levels of economic colonialism. Sweatshops are at the intersection of every contemporary issue. That’s why we’re calling for the abolition of fast fashion. And by calling for the end of sweatshops, we’re also calling for the abolition of prisons.


What does the future that you—and by that, I mean the collective you of Blue Tin—are working towards look like?


We are working towards a world that is not rooted in state-based violence, which then trickles down into community-based violence. It’s about using our power to set the tone for what we could dream for. We want to step back and pull the curtain on all interconnected systems of injustice—racism, classism, and sexism—and say: We want to fight all of these in one breath at the same time, because we have to.

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