What Brands, Workers, Governments and We Must Do in the Wake of the Tragedies in Bangladesh

I woke up this morning to news that there had been yet another garment factory fire in Bangladesh, which killed 8 night shift workers. A collective shaking our heads is in order, before we get into the very necessary next steps that fashion brands, the Bangladeshi government, garment labor groups, and we, the “fashionistas,” must take. With 900 garment workers dead and counting, the Rana Plaza factory collapse on April 24 is the worst disaster in the garment industry’s history. Sadly, there are no guarantees it is the last. Just after the collapse, I’d called for brands to start holding their factories accountable, and for us to resist buying fast fashion. The glaring truth: boycotting brands does further damage to this delicate situation.
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I woke up this morning to news that there had been yet another garment factory fire in Bangladesh, which killed 8 night shift workers. A collective shaking our heads is in order, before we get into the very necessary next steps that fashion brands, the Bangladeshi government, garment labor groups, and we, the “fashionistas,” must take. With 900 garment workers dead and counting, the Rana Plaza factory collapse on April 24 is the worst disaster in the garment industry’s history. Sadly, there are no guarantees it is the last. Just after the collapse, I’d called for brands to start holding their factories accountable, and for us to resist buying fast fashion. The glaring truth: boycotting brands does further damage to this delicate situation.
A Bangladeshi garment worker holds up burnt cloth inside a gutted factory in Dhaka on May 9, 2013. (Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A Bangladeshi garment worker holds up burnt cloth inside a gutted factory in Dhaka on May 9, 2013. (Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

I woke up this morning to news that there had been yet another garment factory fire in Bangladesh, which killed 8 night shift workers. A collective shaking our heads is in order, before we get into the very necessary next steps that fashion brands, the Bangladeshi government, garment labor groups, and we, the “fashionistas,” must take. With 900 garment workers dead and counting, the Rana Plaza factory collapse on April 24 is the worst disaster in the garment industry’s history. Sadly, there are no guarantees it is the last. Just after the collapse, I’d called for brands to start holding their factories accountable, and for us to resist buying fast fashion.

The glaring truth: boycotting brands does further damage to this delicate situation. While we’ve got to be mindful of where we shop, it’s not enough to simply buy vintage, slide on our sunnies and turn away. Bangladesh is home to 3.6 million garment workers, and generated $18 billion in apparel exports last year, second only to China. For young women in a developing, increasingly conservative Muslim country, working in the garment industry is a chance to make a living, extend their education and delay marriage by choice. According to a study by Yale University economics professor Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, “a doubling of garment jobs causes a 6.71 percent increase in the probability that a 5-year-old girl is in school.”

In an interview with Pramila Jayapal at The Nation, Kalpona Akter, the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (and a former child garment worker) says: “We really don’t think that not buying is the solution for us…a boycott doesn’t help us. Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want U.S. consumers to say, 'We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.'"

Ms. Akter also just concluded her End Death Traps tour, along with Sumi Abedin, a survivor of the November 24, 2012 Tazreen factory fire, where they spoke to audiences about demanding compensation and accountability for fire and building safety from companies like Wal-Mart.

What might do even more harm?

Companies deciding to completely pull out their business. Disney confirmed its new permitted sourcing countries policy earlier this March “to transition the production of Disney-branded goods out of the highest-risk countries…to more effectively focus our resources…in locations more likely to make continuous improvements in working conditions.”

Disney’s policy shift came swiftly after the Tazreen factory fire, where burnt scraps of Mickey Mouse-emblazoned clothes were allegedly discovered in the ashes. (Disney denied contracting with the factory in Tazreen.) But the company’s cut and run from Bangladesh and other “highest-risk” countries will not make things better.

Come on, now. We all know pulling out doesn’t work. It’s irresponsible. It isn’t a solution.

According to Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the “whole ethical fashion movement is nipping at these brands’ heels." "[We need] a two-prong approach, where consumers need to put pressure on brands to improve safety conditions, and the brands have to change," she says. "We’re at a turning point.”

According to the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, the cost to the global garment industry to bring Bangladeshi factories’ safety standards up to code under the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement:

$3 billion, over 5 years.

The cost to consumers for this upgrade in 4,500 factories:

10 cents, per garment. For that extra dime, check your clutches and couches.

Two Bangladeshi women look at a board with notices posted of missing and dead workers three days after the factory collapse in Savar.  (Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Two Bangladeshi women look at a board with notices posted of missing and dead workers three days after the factory collapse in Savar. (Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) is calling for major retailers like Walmart, H&M and Gap to sign onto the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement. Between May 1-4, there have been crucial, high-level meetings between brands, labor and government, about enacting the agreement. According to the ILO, the Bangladeshi government must initiate the action plan to improve working conditions, including the “hiring of 200 additional inspectors within six months, and a budget increase for 800 inspectors.” More than 4,000 regular folks have signed this Change.org petition to demand companies sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.

There are tangible, successful examples of ways brands can shift to more ethical practices. Knight’s Apparel, the college apparel brand, owns their factories in the Dominican Republic. They take complete responsibility for what’s happening on the factory floor. According to Cline, “that does not translate into an increased cost for the consumer. It’s important from a branding perspective—[a company] takes on costs to make things eco-friendly and ethical.” Companies like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher build long-term relationships with their factories. “There’s complete transparency, allowing to consumers find out about the factory and country where their apparel is produced.”

A recent New York Times article about the fair trade movement expanding from the food world to the fashion world (so we as shoppers can know where our clothes come from) notes that “cheap clothes, no matter where or how they are manufactured, still sell, as H&M, Zara and Joe Fresh show through their rapid expansion.” Fast fashion sells, because it gives us a chance to buy trends that begin on faraway, expensive runways. There’s that moment when I’m picking up a pair of $10 floral denim shorts at Forever 21, and I peel back the tag. Made in ____. And I look around at other shoppers, all of us young and broke, rummaging through the sales racks, buying cheap clothes that are diluted from the original high-fashion intention. We buy it anyway.

The difference now is we want to know where it comes from. An exciting development that’s happening in fashion is a labeling system, so that “when you walk into an H&M, you’ll experience something similar to when you buy fair trade coffee,” says Cline.

How does it work? The special label will reveal that an independent workers’ rights group has toured and inspected the garment factory, approving that it meets standards.

Alonzo Suson, Bangladesh Director of the labor rights group, Solidarity Center, has been conducting surveys with survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse. There’s an eerie repetition to all of the survivors’ stories: I wasn't forced, but my supervisor said I would lose my pay.

Some of them ended up losing their limbs.

Suson says, “When brands push the price down, it pushes the owners to cut cost. Ethical buying is about ensuring freedom, making sure that people’s right to organize is implemented. I don't think you can change the employers’ position on organizing, unless brands say unionized labor is required to do business. That would trigger something.”

Brands have immense leverage when it comes to the factories, and ultimately they’ve got leverage over the Bangladeshi government’s regulation practices. “I’m very skeptical about anything the Bangladeshi government is saying. They’re taking cues from these brands, so it’s up to the brands,” says Cline.

In a defensive (and depressing) interview with CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour, it’s evident that Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina has little knowledge of what’s happening on the ground in garment factories and the implications of the collapse on the garment industry’s future. Ms. Amanpour sharply catches Sheikh Hasina fumbling for an excuse. Says Hasina, “Anywhere in the world, these accidents take place. You can’t predict anything...Bangladesh now is a place for good condition for their investment…”

When Amanpour mentions the murder of labor activist Aminul Islam by police, again Hasina denies the government’s knowledge of his role in the labor movement.

The Bangladeshi government has continually suppressed the burgeoning organization of garment workers and other labor movements in Bangladesh. Losing businesses seeking the cheapest labor in the world is too great a risk. The blind eye they’ve turned to decrepitude and abuse has enabled factory owners like Rana Plaza’s Sohel Rana to threaten workers when they bring up legitimate concerns.

Says Suson, “Of the 4,000+ garment factories, there are only 30 factory level unions, 20 of which formed in the last six months after the Tazreen factory fire. Workers were organizing, but the Government refused to recognize them and register the unions. Without unions, it's hard, if not impossible, for workers to raise issues.”

Now, for us, the fashion forward, what are some things we can do?

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Being political about what we wear everyday is not something most of us think about. However, a lot of folks turned up on the streets throughout the world on May 1, International Workers Day, joining protests with labor rights groups in front of major retailers. Besides buying from local designers or second-hand, we can try investigating what’s behind a brand before we buy. ShopEthica lists some handy apps to help you shop, including Good Guide, which I’ve used to see check what products are environmentally and ethically safe, mostly for beauty and bath companies. They list a few apparel companies, (I only know Levi’s, Armani and Patagonia on their list) although I’m sure this is evolving because of the current state of affairs.

Social media is a weapon. Inundating the Facebook and Twitter feeds with your harsh and demanding opinions of a company’s buying practices is more powerful than you know. They’ll do anything to protect their brand.

Let’s hope this is true.

Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel is forthcoming by Viking Penguin. Follower her on @tanwinandini.