You’re out shopping and see a cute shirt at your favourite fast-fashion store. When you check the price tag, you are happy to discover that it’s super inexpensive, and without a second thought, you put the shirt in your shopping bag. As you’re checking out, you get a glimpse of a tag that says ‘Made in Bangladesh’, but you think nothing of it- aren’t all clothes made there these days? The next day, you wear your new shirt and feel like a million bucks.
What you don’t know is that that shirt was made by a sweatshop worker who is paid less than $68 USD a month, barely enough to cover their life necessities.
What’s $68 to you, though? You spend more than that on one pair of shoes, one pair of jeans, one nice sweater. Affordable, fashionable clothing is something that a lot of us take for granted; we don’t usually give much thought to where the products before us come from, because we don’t have to.
Shopping is a favourite pastime for many people all over the world, and the fashion industry rakes in some of the highest numbers of any industry in the world yearly. Millions of consumers buy millions of articles of clothing everyday- but how often do we take a step back to question where exactly our clothes are coming from?
China → Bangladesh
Most of the world’s garment manufacturing industry used to be located in China, but ever since China’s employee rights, particularly those around minimum wage, started to become better regulated, production has shifted to countries with slacker law enforcement, such as Bangladesh and Cambodia. The reason is simple: wherever labour is the cheapest is where the industry will go.
Increasing numbers of workers in the Bangladeshi apparel industry
Who buys Ready Made Garments (RMG) from Bangladesh?
In Bangladesh, one of the largest RMG (Ready Made Garments) manufacturers in the world, the minimum wage for factory workers is $68 per month. However, the law is often broken and workers may be paid as little as $38 per month. Verbal and physical abuse from factory managers is commonplace. Tremendous amounts of pressure are put upon workers to produce as many products as possible in as little time as possible. Illness and injury occur often, and most of the time, mean the end of a factory worker’s livelihood. Workplace conditions are often unsanitary and dangerous, resulting in countless easily preventable, senseless deaths.
Below is a recount of the deadliest industrial accident in history, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Please note that there are graphic images below that some may find disturbing. View discretion is advised.
Rana Plaza Factory Collapse
April 24, 2013
It’s 8:00 AM in the capital city of Bangladesh. The year is 2013, and it is April 24th. Nearly four thousand factory workers are standing outside of Rana Plaza, an eight-story building housing several factories that produce clothes for brands such as Wal-Mart, Loblaws, and Primark. The workers refuse to enter the building because there are large, dangerous cracks in the walls. Twenty-four hours ago, all workers had been evacuated from the building due to high risk of a structural failure, but they are now being ordered back to work by management personnel. Nerves are strung thin. Tension is high. There are many fears that the factory will collapse.
To force the people to go inside and work, Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, pays gang members to physically beat them. Managers tell people that there will be no pay for the entire month if they do not enter. With no pay, there will be no food for the workers or their families. The workers have no choice.
At 8:00 AM, all factory workers enter Rana Plaza.
Forty-five minutes later, the entire building collapses.
The aftermath is horrific.
In the wake of the catastrophe, 1 129 people were confirmed dead and more than 2 500 were injured.
For those whose lives were directly affected, it was indescribable.
The collapse of Rana Plaza was an event that shook the very foundations of the fashion industry, making companies and consumers alike question the ethics of where their clothing came from.
Yet, how often do we hear about Rana Plaza today?
It’s Easier to Ignore It, Isn’t It?
Rana Plaza was the deadliest industrial accident in history, but it was only one tragedy in a sea of them. Every other day, there seems to be some new report lurking in the seams of the news page of another accident at another sweatshop, or yet another article on how outsourced labourers are being severely underpaid, abused, and denied their rights. September 2012, Pakistan: 254 dead and 55 injured in a factory fire; November 2012, Bangladesh, 123 dead and 150 injured in a factory fire; May 2015, Philippines, 74 dead in a factory fire– there always seems to be some problem with this ugly side of the clothing industry.
In fact, there are so many glaring issues that it’s deafening. Numbing. Desensitizing. The problems number so many that after a while, they turn into background noise. It’s a lot easier- and a lot less stressful- to just ignore them. It’s easier for us consumers in developed countries to turn a blind eye to horrific deaths of other humans than to face the truth behind where our clothes are coming from. After all, death tolls and price tags are both just numbers, and we are the ones who get to choose which numbers to focus on.
Further, it doesn’t help that the companies selling us the clothes are doing their best to cover up the truth behind how the products are being made. Seldom will you hear of a corporation releasing information about how workers’ rights are being violated in factories that are producing their clothing- what a PR nightmare that would be.
What H&M Doesn’t Want You to Know
The working conditions page on the H&M website concerning matters of their outsourced labour states that “Everyone should be treated with respect and the suppliers should offer their workers fair wages and good working conditions“, but a September 2016 report from the Cambodian NGO Center for Alliance of Labor & Human Rights (CENTRAL) and Future In Our Hands shows that the company is far from achieving their mission statement. In Cambodian facilities producing H&M clothing, it has been exposed that labour laws and workers’ rights are failing to be upheld: minimum wage is still not being paid to workers; many workers have short-term contracts that only span for a few months, leaving them with no promise of employment in the long term; 75% of suppliers “expressed discontent with absence of independent unions and lack of freedom of association“, fearing that if they tried to form a union, they would have to face discrimination, forced resignation, or wage deductions.
Looks like H&M forgot to put a few details on their workings conditions page.
It is clear to see that the fight for garment workers’ rights and safety is far from over. Though the world is becoming more ethically conscious, the actions of large corporations in enforcing regulations in their outsourced garment factories are still painfully slow. For many, the change is not enough to make a difference.
What Can I Do?
We, as consumers, have more power than you might think. Companies like Walmart, Loblaws, Primark, and H&M are watching what we do very closely, because we are the ones putting food on their tables. Part of the reason why terrible working conditions for factory workers continue to exist today is because we as consumers have not made a strong enough stand against it. As long as our banks accounts feed into the wallets of heads of operations of these companies and we don’t bring up our concerns with the way factory workers in developing countries are being treated, the companies will not prioritize the improvement of workplace safety, equality, or wage regulations. Though the movement for justice and better lives for factory workers is already underway, it can only continue through the efforts of individuals like you and me.
The first step in making a difference is to get better educated about this issue. There are links below that you can click to learn more about the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the current conditions of garment factories worldwide, and what you can do to help.
Finally, the next time you go shopping, think about the clothes you are buying, and how they were made. Consider whose life your purchase is affecting. Be a conscientious consumer.
Think about it: is your wardrobe worth someone else’s life?
More About Rana Plaza:
More On the Garment Industry
What Can I Do to Help Change the Garment Industry?
Videos & Documentaries to Check Out
–The True Cost (Documentary available on Netflix)
-Fashion Factories Undercover (Documentary) – Real Stories