This coming April will mark 5 years since the garment industry’s deadliest disaster: the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh. The tragedy, a consequence of cheap construction and heavy equipment, was entirely avoidable, yet took the lives of over 1,100 people and injured thousands more. It regrettably took a catastrophe of this magnitude to grab the attention and condemnation of the international community - in its wake, calls for stronger labor rights and transparent supply chains were profuse. Nonetheless, the global fashion industry has sustained an annual growth rate of 4.78% since 2011, with the industry valued at an astounding 1.4 trillion USD in 2017, and is only expected to grow (Foundation for Economic Education). The Rana Plaza tragedy tangibly revealed the fatal flaws in the garment industry and its profound human rights implications, but what has been done about it?
Dhaka Savar Building Collapse. Source: Flickr.
As of 2014, between 60 and 75 million people are employed worldwide (largely in Asia) by the garment and footwear industry. However, this has not always been the case. As recent as 2000, only 20 million people were employed in the garment sector (cleanclothes.org). The exponential growth and transformation of the fashion industry is truly an unprecedented twenty-first century phenomenon. The traditional fashion industry has been overtaken by the new ‘fast fashion’ industry, pioneered by companies such as Zara, H&M, and Forever 21. Emerging in the 1990s, fast fashion was made possible when international trade norms began to lift regulations and allow companies to relocate manufacturing to developing countries where labour costs were much lower. With the help of low production costs and a streamlined supply chain, the fast fashion industry utilizes a business model that relies on “stocking inexpensive fashion forward items in limited quantities that would encourage frequent store visits and purchases” (Ian Malcolm Taplin). In result, fast fashion is as addicting to the consumer as it is cheap and accessible.
Fast fashion’s success lies in inexpensive, overseas labor. As competition drives prices down and demand up, factories and their workers are under increasing pressure to keep pace. In Bangladesh alone, the second highest garment producing country behind China, there are 4,825 garment factories that account for 80% of the nation’s export revenue (War on Want). Despite the new wealth being generated, factory workers have yet to reap its benefits and in remain grossly underpaid and mistreated. Perhaps the most fundamental and undeniable right that is consistently denied to garment factory works is the right to earn a living wage.
According to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a worker’s ability to meet basic needs with a living wage is a fundamental human right. Garment factory workers in Bangladesh are lucky to make anything above the minimum wage set at 32 cents an hour. In a month’s time, this only amounts to about 3,000 taka. As the living wage in Bangladesh is an estimated 5,000 taka a month, garment workers simply do not make enough money to support themselves, much less their families (War on Want). Furthermore, workers are often forced to work overtime without compensation and against their will. Factory owners posit that all overtime work, as it is usually exceeds the legal limit, is voluntary, but in reality they threaten dismissal or salary cuts if their workers do not stay. A recent report found that in one Bangladesh factory, managers physically beat their workers who were incapable of meeting ridiculous production goals (Rachel Tang). Adding insult to injury, freedom of association and labour unions are heavily restricted and repressed by both state regulators and factory owners. Before the Rana Plaza collapse, the Bangladeshi government only recognized a handful of unions and would quell collective action through violence and unjustified detention. Factory owners, on the other hand, utilize short-term contracts and threat of dismissal to discourage unions from the inside. The combination of inhumane wages and hours with the inability to form productive unions to fight such inhumanity has created top-down system where workers consistently lose.
An overall disregard for health and safety is another human rights concern that has already taken or devastated the lives of too many. Building safety in particular is poorly regulated due to corruption between factory owners and government officials who turn a blind eye. The collapse of the Rana Plaza is clear testament to the inadequacy of safety regulations, and it was certainly not an isolated incident. It is estimated that over 700 workers died between 2007 and 2013 in factory fires in Bangladesh and China (Rachel Tang). The Rana Plaza disaster served as a wake up call in many ways and revealed the need for not only greater transparency in the industry, but also vast improvements on health, safety, and labor regulations.
Some progress has been achieved through the Bangladeshi government who worked to improve safety measures and workers rights immediately after the tragedy. Agreements such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety were additionally reached between trade unions and global retail brands. Additionally, 17 large brands such as Patagonia and Nike have agreed to The Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge while others such as Walt Disney Co. are now publishing names and addresses of supplier factories. These measures are certainly a step in the right direction, but their effectiveness is yet to be truly realized. While 17 companies did agree to the Transparency Pledge by the end of 2017, 55 companies also contacted by coalitions did not (NPR). Bangladeshi factory workers themselves have not been idle, with tens of thousands of workers participating in a walk-off protest of low wages at the end of 2016, effectively shutting down 50 factories in Dhaka for a week.
On the surface, the affordable, trendy clothing is alluring. That allure tends to disintegrate when one learns the social and environmental consequences of fast fashion. More often than not, consumers would chose to buy their clothes from an ethical and transparent supply chain if given the option. That option needs to become more available, and the vocal and informed consumer can play a large role in making that happen. Companies, consumers, governments, and workers all have roles to play in the fight against fast fashion’s evils.