Three years ago, in April 2013, an eight-storey building in Bangladesh called Rana Plaza fell to the ground and killed more than 1,100 people. Whilst 2,500 people managed to escape death, many now have life-long disabilities. All were garment factory workers. The Rana Plaza tragedy became known as the biggest catastrophe in garment industry history, because the collapse of the building was entirely preventable. It provoked enquiries from around the world into the exploitation of workers in this industry, as the unsafe working conditions and extremely low wages of garment factories was revealed. In the wake of this disaster, fashion companies were called upon to provide transparency of their supply chains, and both Oxfam and Baptist World Aid Australia conducted assessments and released reports on their findings in June 2016. This article reflects on these reports, asks what has been done to ensure the safety of workers, and questions whether the low price of fast-fashion still comes at a life-threatening cost for workers.
Ready-made garments are mass-produced finished textile products of the clothing industry. The first factory established to create ready-made garments was in New York in 1831, when soldiers required uniforms for the American Civil War. At the end of the nineteenth century ready-made clothing was being produced for both the low and middle classes and by the late 1860s, 25% percent of garments produced in the U.S. were ready- made. This figure rose to 60% by 1890 and by 1951, 90% percent of garments sold in the United States were ready-made. It is since this time that the readymade garment industry has begun to grow exponentially. Global production outside the U.S. has quickly opened itself up to a wider population, as it promised higher paid, somewhat secure work. This attracted multitudes of workers in developing countries who sought an alternative from their low-paying agricultural jobs, and migration to the city soon became popular. By 2014, Bangladesh saw its GDP grow almost 27 times in four decades. Today 60 million people work in garment factories globally, with 15 million of these in Asia. More than 3.6 million of these workers are in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Production and Wages
In order to keep up with the growth of fast, affordable fashion, the industry has chased the lowest possible costs for production and favoured countries offering the most attractive deals. This has resulted in the wages of workers being kept exploitatively minimal to maintain low production costs. This is particularly evident in Bangladesh. A monthly living wage in Bangladesh is 6900 taka (AUD $117) which is supposed to ensure that a person is able to afford food, water, shelter, clothing, power, healthcare and education. The national poverty line is 6,340 taka (AUD $107). However in the garment industry in Bangladesh, workers are on a minimum wage of 3,500 taka (approximately AUD $60) per month. In 2013, with even a full-time job at the minimum wage, this is clearly not sufficient to provide a decent standard of living.
Furthermore, this industry is the largest employer of women in Bangladesh, who are generally cheaper workers than men. A study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that in the garment industry, women are paid up to 30% less than men.
The flip side of this is that as most formal jobs in the city exclude migrant women, the garment sector provides financial independence and empowerment that many other trades in developing countries do not. With the means to support their families, women are able to achieve a sense of independence and assured a stable income. Unfortunately however, common to most of the garment sector throughout Asia, the garment industry often operates under corrupt circumstances. In Bangladesh, trade unions are almost non-existent, and garment factory owners often have political ties that make it difficult to discern between legal and illegal business dealings. These are additional factors that only serve to perpetuate the exploitation of garment factory workers.
The Rana Plaza Incident
The Rana Plaza collapsed on the 24th April 2013, one day after cracks had been discovered in the building’s walls. It has now been revealed that before the factory was built, the owner, Sohel Rana, only obtained permission to build a five storey building. But due to his political connections, authorities turned a blind eye to the illegal construction of the top three stories. The site of the building (which was once a pond) was not strong enough to support these top three storeys. Since its collapse, experts have concluded that the vibration of the sewing machines was too much for the already unstable building to handle. Had a safety inspection occurred, Rana Plaza would have been immediately closed. But the day after the cracks appeared in the walls, the factory owners insisted that the building was safe and threatened employees who refused to go to work. Without safety experts to discount these assertions, the factory workers had no choice but to work.
It is a sad reality of this industry that the factory owners put more value in meeting their daily quotas than in the safety of their employees.
For many, the Rana Plaza collapse was the last straw. The disaster exposed the fashion industry’s elusive supply chain, which irrevocably connected consumers in the western world with exploited garment factory workers in developing countries. For many, this connection had never been made before. As more questions have been asked it has been revealed that to produce their clothing, factories were not meeting sourcing guidelines or maintaining basic living wages, average working hours, or regular safety inspections. Responses From the International Community In late 2013, as a result of the tremendous pressure from international worker advocacy groups, NGOs, buyers and brands, the minimum wage in Bangladesh was raised to 5,300 taka (AUD $90). While this is still below the living wage, it is an improvement.
Around the same time, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) established plans with the Bangladesh government to improve working conditions in the garment sector through the National Tripartite Plan of Action (NTPA). They also committed to rebuild the Department of Inspections of Factories and Establishments (DIFE). Two other agreements; the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, have been established between international retailers, which includes Australian brands Cotton On Group, Forever New, Kmart, Target and Woolworths.These agreements include routine inspections of 1,600 garment factories throughout Bangladesh, with full details provided on their websites. Thirty-nine factories were closed in late 2015 for posing a danger to workers.
The bad news is of the 5,000 garment factories in operation in Bangladesh, an approximate 4,961 are still operating without these inspections.
What Can You Do?
There are a number of ways you can ensure that the clothes you buy have not been made by people who have been exploited. Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) has developed an accreditation program that monitors the supply chains of companies and ensures that the entire process is fully transparent and legally compliant. Some well-known brands that are signed with the ECA include Cue, Jeanswest and R. M. Williams. Fairtrade options are also becoming increasingly available and can be trusted to provide ethical and sustainable manufacturing environments that meet social and environmental standards. Australia is involved with the Fair Trade Association, which encompasses Fair Trade International (FLO) and the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO). Clothing accredited by these organisations can be found throughout Australia. While the price of Fairtrade products may be a little higher, it means that you can buy clothes that have been made ethically, and wear them with a clear conscience.
Since the devastation of the Rana Plaza collapse, the garment industry has seemingly turned a new corner. Realistically and logistically, a structural overhaul of the industry may take years to eventuate, during which time the potential is huge for similar disasters to the Rana Plaza collapse. While many initiatives have been suggested and some implemented, time will tell whether they will provide ongoing safe working conditions and acceptable wages, or whether they will fall apart at the seams. Consumers are not helpless, but in fact command the lifeline of the garment industry and by extension, the standard of life of its workers. Next time you go shopping will you see these clothes for what they really are – cheap price-tags on the lives of garment factory workers? And will you turn a blind eye and buy the garment anyway, or next time, will you choose differently?