Two years after the Rana Plaza disaster where 1,138 garment workers lost their lives and over 2,500 more were injured, many permanently, a light has begun to shine on the issues within the garment industry overseas, though it remains dim. These issues have existed throughout the mass production era in the West, and has now moved to the East.
The workers in the crumbling Bangladeshi building in Rana Plaza were at their sewing machines on the morning of April 24, 2013 when the building with known faults and cracks literally fell apart.
A powerful visual taken by photojournalist Taslima Akhter captured a haunting image of a tragedy that was avoidable. Had ethics been considered by all involved, that couple would be alive today. The image has worked its way through just about every blog and article on the Rana Plaza disaster because it so clearly illustrates the price, we as a society, are willing to pay to clothe ourselves.
Akhter continues to campaign for worker’s rights and says, “If my photo helps to change workers’ life conditions a little bit, that will be my success.”
Success is double-sided. Business has a bad reputation for maximizing profits at the cost of humanity and the environment. And this reputation is further worsened within the garment industry with its sweatshop history here in North America, which substantially improved during the 1930’s thanks to laws passed by then President Rossevelt.
The garment factories in North America in the early 1900’s were not much different than Rana Plaza today, and laws were passed to protect workers, not just in the garment industry, but in manufacturing overall. In doing so, wages were increased to meet minimums. Buildings and working conditions also needed to meet certain fair and just stipulations. This in turn increased the cost of producing garments in North America and the industry began to shift east, where workers accept lower wages and poor working conditions.
There is no question that the goal of enterprise is to maximize profit, mostly by reducing expenses, but ethical businesses will not inflict human suffering in order to meet this goal. The Rana Plaza incident only further defines the greed that proliferates the garment industry at all levels. From large brands and corporations all the way to the factory owners, and of course the consumer at the end of the retail chain. But what are the solutions? What has changed since the Rana Plaza disaster?
There is also no question over the past few decades the consumer has become increasingly accustomed to cheap clothing, both in price and quality. Our need or greed to fill our closets with the latest trend is astounding. If asked, “Who makes your clothes?” Most people will not have the answer, but chances are, if you look at your clothing label you’ll notice it was made in a country you know little about, by people who are faceless. Due to disasters like Rana Plaza and the Tazreen factory fire consumers are becoming more conscious and are increasingly concerned about the origins of their clothing. This is one good change since Rana Plaza, but must it really take a tragedy to employ basic human ethics?
The conscious awakening of consumers has led to an outcry for better working conditions for garment workers, but still falls hopelessly short. Much work has to be done to raise the level of consciousness and allow the average consumer to withdraw from the drug of owing a multitude of cheap goods at cheap prices.
Among the rubble and debris of the crumbled building there were plenty of labels, fabric, and garments found. These items provided information on the many corporations that had directly or indirectly contracted the garment factories at Rana Plaza to produce their designs. In the months following the disaster some steps have been taken to improve the working conditions and an Alliance was created for Bangladesh Worker Safety. A compensation fund was also created to compensate the injured and the families of those who lost their lives, but again not nearly enough has been done. Throwing money their way is not the answer, and often the amounts aren’t enough. Real change in attitudes is an absolute necessity to encourage true reforms in the apparel industry.
Some big and recognizable brands whose labels were found amidst the debris, have shunned responsibility and flatly refused to contribute, and others are extremely tight-lipped. Thanks to organizations like LabourbehindtheLabel.org the campaign is on to push for changes and improve worker safety. This UK based non-profit has been relentless in campaigning for garment worker’s rights, not just in Bangladesh, but in Cambodia, Eastern Europe, and other third world economies where workers are easily taken advantage of.
Labour Behind the Label works tirelessly to gain compensation for injured workers through their Clean Clothes Campaign and tell us, “One woman, who lost her husband in the collapse in April, told the Clean Clothes Campaign that his body is still missing. Her husband worked on the fifth floor at Phantom Tec factory as a sewing operator and earned 4800Taka (47 Euro) per month. She is the sole carer of a seven month old baby and her elderly father, who is in poor health. She has been offered a sewing machine and been give 1000Taka (10 Euros) by the BGMEA, the Bangladesh exporters’ association, but has not received her husband’s salary or any further compensation.” So what now? The factory owners, big brands and corporations walk away from the rubble, hoping it will just go away?
The factory owners themselves are mired in their own twisted ideologies in a system that is rife with corruption and politics. Greed at all levels propels them to maintain shoddy working conditions and low wages, and this behaviour does not apply to just Bangladesh. It just so happens that Bangladesh is currently one of the poorest countries willing to accept these unacceptable terms inflicted upon them in order to simply survive, and to boost their economy toward globalization.
Clearly there are no easy answers. The issues can be overwhelming, but with an educated consumer that asks the right questions change is inevitable. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the things in life that are discomforting, but it’s only the power of people that will eventually move corporations to act ethically on behalf of all global labourers. Using business for good is a powerful tool that can encourage true and lasting change, and it is individuals that can propel that change. When issues appear insurmountable you can be assured that simple solutions managed effectively will make a difference.
Transparency here, I have ownership in two small clothing brands. The garments for these brands are mostly made in the USA, with a few items produced in China, by an ethical manufacturer. Though I will add, that manufacturer was not so easy to find. The objective here is not to take away work from the garment workers or the factory owners in developing economies. I just believe that all people are entitled to work in a safe and just environment and that human dignity and compassion should come before profit, or at the very least alongside it.
If you the consumer takes a few simple steps, the fashion world will evolve for the better and the wheel of change will begin to turn. You can do this by learning about the issues within the garment industry, asking who makes your clothes, and investigating the ethics of a business before committing your hard earned money to a purchase. As consumers we can do better. As humans we must do better.
On April 24, 2015 take a selfie showing your label and post it with the hashtag #whomademyclothes to join fashionrevolution.org, in a revolution to push for change. This American organization is creating a whirlwind of activity in support of the thousands injured and dead at Rana Plaza two years ago, and provides a level of optics that few of us even think about when choosing our clothing.
Professor Muhammad Yunus a strong proponent of social enterprise, a Nobel Peace Laureate and author of Building Social Business, who himself is Bangladeshi, says this, “We must make the Garment Industry exploitation-free, ensuring safety and dignity for all workers. They contribute so much to our economies, and help buying-companies and factory-owners make profits, but are amongst some of the most vulnerable people in the world. If all stakeholders are committed to improving their lives, there is no reason why it should not happen.”
We are all stakeholders that can help solve this problem. Becoming an educated consumer is not an option. It is an absolute necessity. It is consumers that have driven the desire for cheap clothing. It is consumers that must push for brands, corporations, and factory owners, to serve their workers well, and to stay above the white line.
That designer label you’re wearing came with a hefty price. Much more than the cash you laid out. Somewhere, someone, is paying, with their life.