As Covid-19 sweeps across the world, labor organizers and activists have shared that fashion brands are mass canceling orders already produced or in production, without considering the devastating impact of unpaid wages to the women on the factory floor. These are the same women who have kept them profitable for years.
In Bangladesh, this week marks the seven year anniversary of Rana Plaza, the deadliest industry disaster of our time. On April 24, 2013, a building structure collapsed, killing 1,132 people in Bangladesh that were sewing clothes for brands including Primark, Benetton and Walmart.
The parallels created by Covid-19 have been eerie: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association's President, Dr. Rubana Huq, has appealed to international buyers. She says that with $3 billion dollars worth of orders canceled or paused by brands, garment makers will literally be on the streets, resulting in massive social unrest.
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Photojournalist Claudio Casillas used to live in Bangladesh and went back before the global shutdown to photograph and speak with the many garment makers who fill its streets and apparel factories, including the families of Rana Plaza victims.
"Rana Plaza is not a 'tragedy,'" he told us. "I see it more as murder."
Casillas's sentiment is understandable — the fact that Rana Plaza's owners ignored warnings that the building was dangerous after cracks had appeared in the structure the day before its collapse is well-documented.
When Rana Plaza fell down, it took days to pull bodies out of the wreckage, capturing the attention of journalists, activists and everyday shoppers alike. To this day, those images haunt me. I founded Remake to hold the industry accountable, to push for safety and transparency and to educate everyday shoppers on the human cost of fast fashion.
At that time the industry sprung into action and building safety improvements were made. "Never again" was the refrain from fashion brands, multi-stakeholder initiatives and the glitzy stage of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit — never again will human lives be lessened and lost in our quest for cheap clothes.
I asked Casillas what the Rana Plaza site looks like today, and he showed me images of an overgrown lot. The photos were taken during the monsoon season. Any other time of year, he says, and the landscape would have been sand.
"It's completely empty," says Casillas. "There's nothing." What strikes him is that there is no memorial commemorating the 1,132 victims.
A journalist for a local television channel that Casillas spoke to on his visit to Bangladesh, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, stated how the Rana Plaza disaster could have been averted if not for production pressures to make clothing cheaply and quickly.
"One day before the collapse, I saw how the structure was shaking. I interviewed garment makers who said they were extremely afraid to work in such an unstable place," the journalist told Casillas.
The next day, just as young women were heading into the building for the morning shift, it fell and claimed the lives of 1,132 of them.
When I ask Casillas why the Bangladeshis appear to pay so little mind to the site of the deadliest structural failure in history, he answered, "Brands have invested a lot to make the label an image of safety. If there is a lot of focus on Rana Plaza, it's not good for business."
Just like the foliage overgrown on the now forgotten Rana Plaza site, the fashion industry eagerly moved on, assuring the world that the industry from now on would be sustainable.
Yet as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many of the same brands that were implicated in the Rana Plaza collapse, including Primark and Walmart, canceled orders produced and already in production, causing a severe liquidity crunch for factories that in turn are unable to pay the makers of our clothes. Women have been protesting on the streets of Dhaka, without an ability to safely distance. Many are getting reduced pay while others have not been paid at all. These are women without savings, access to healthcare or food security.
In trying to get back to the Rana Plaza site, Casillas had to jump a wall to get in, as the land is private property.
"If you dig through the bushes," he said, "you can still find fashion labels." These labels point to clothing being made for Benetton, JC Penney, The Children's Place, Joe Fresh, Primark, Walmart and more when the building fell and claimed so many lives. The industry may have moved on, but victims' families have created a makeshift memorial down the road from the original site. They have not forgotten.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit us all hard. As we veer toward economic collapse, worry about our health, jobs and savings, this is also a time for a reset when it comes to buying cheap and disposable clothes that don't tell the full story of the alarming cost on human lives and our planet.
On average, a Bangladeshi garment maker takes home $156 per month while working "compulsory" overtime. In comparison, the global fashion industry is worth approximately $2.5 trillion, and the top eight global fashion companies all make over a billion dollars in profit annually. Even seven years after Rana Plaza, garment makers live in substandard conditions and make poverty wages. The coronavirus pandemic has taught us that when business constricts for brands and retailers, it becomes a question of life or death for the millions of women who make our clothes.
So what has changed in the seven years since Rana Plaza? It seems a lot and not much. Yes, factories have gotten safer — but fashion's race to the bottom has continued, keeping the makers of our clothes trapped in poverty without any safety nets.
As everyday shoppers, we have the power during this moment of reset to demand better labor and environmental protections. We have the power to vote in elections, but also to vote with our voices and our dollars for the brands that did not turn their backs on makers. It was only seven years ago that we lost 1,132 young lives working furiously to sew clothing that was going to end up in landfills anyway. Let us not forget the world's most vulnerable people during this crisis.
This article was written by Ayesha Barenblat and Chelsey Grasso of Remake, a non-profit organization that exists to shed light on the human rights violations and environmental injustices being caused by the fashion industry.