Julia Wang is a senior at USC and the International Solidarity Campaigns representative on her campus. She recently went on a student delegation to Bangladesh to conduct research on apparel factories. Full disclosure: She is the sister of Refinery29's senior global editor, Connie Wang.
I love clothing. I love most everything about it, from the act of shopping for it to looking at how other people wear it to dressing myself up. But more and more, loving clothes feels like a confession. Why? Recently, I went to Bangladesh on a delegation with the United Students Against Sweatshops to learn about how the labor movement can put an end to disasters that kill thousands of workers who make the clothes that I love. I always knew that there was a price to fashion that was beyond the one printed on the tags. After this trip, the human price for fashion became all too real.
The first day we were in Bangladesh, we met with a young woman named Dipa, who was a survivor or the Tazreen factory fire that killed 112 of her coworkers last November. Dipa told us about how she started working at Tazreen when she was 16 because she needed to help support her family, and over her next three years, she had risen in the ranks and become an operator. And, though this didn’t come with an increase in pay, she was proud of the title. The day of the fire, the workers had been promised that they could leave at 6 p.m. because they were all fasting for a religious holiday. At 6, they were forced to continue working because they did not hit their daily quotas, and the doors were locked to prevent the workers from going home and eating with their families. By 7:30, the fire had started, and the managers were nowhere to be found. The gates were locked, the stairs were filled with smoke, and the windows had thick metal bars over them — there was no way to escape. Finally, one of the mechanics broke a steel fan that was built into the wall of the factory, and one by one, the workers jumped from the fourth floor. Dipa said that the mechanic had to throw her out because she was so scared, and that was the last thing she remembered until she woke up in the hospital. At this point in the interview, Dipa paused, and in a quiet voice, told us that she miscarried due to the smoke and her fall. Since then, she’s been from hospital to hospital, seeking treatment for a vast array of injuries, but because she’s not making an income, there is no way to pay for the health care.
In the last year, three of the four largest industrial disasters have occurred in the history of the garment industry. Tazreen claimed 112 deaths; Ali Enterprises, 289; and Rana Plaza, 1,127. The fourth was the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that happened over a century ago in New York City, killing 146 young garment workers. The disaster outraged the nation and sparked a movement of women workers who fought for their rights in the workplace. They formed the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which rose to become one of the strongest labor unions in the history of the United States and helped transform an industry supported by sweatshops into one consisting of safe, respectable jobs. However, brands quickly discovered that the cost of labor and materials was much cheaper in Asian and Central American countries. And, now, garment production is largely outsourced to factories in other countries. The same lax regulations that led to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire are in place in sweatshops around the world.
Workers in Bangladesh are putting their lives at risk every single day when they enter their factories. Besides the rampant sexual abuse, constant verbal harassment, wage theft, forced overtime, intimidation, and even kidnapping and torture in some cases, the factories are a death trap. We met with engineers from top universities in Bangladesh who have conducted studies that show that out of the 5,000 registered factories in the country, 90% of them are structurally unsound.
It’s easy to vilify the factory owners, but that would be oversimplifying. When we spoke with factory owners, they revealed the incredible pressures they were under from brands who placed orders with them. Brands set their asking price, and factory owners are forced to cut corners until they can meet those prices, because they know that if they don’t, the factory down the road would figure out a way. Costs like utilities, machinery, rent, and materials for production stay pretty much static, so the only other places for many owners to cut back are wages and safety standards. The fact of the matter is that while we were touring the factories, we saw workers churning out pants and jackets that usually cost more many than a worker makes a month.
After Rana Plaza, an agreement was formed between brands and Bangladeshi labor unions called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. The Accord outlines requirements for brands that ensure workers’ rights, like the right to refuse to work if the conditions are unsafe and the right to form health and safety committees where workers can formally raise concerns about their working conditions. Over 85 brands have signed onto the Accord, supporting the idea that a legally binding agreement between brands and workers is the best way to put an end to death traps in Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, many American brands have refused to sign the Accord and have formed their own Alliance for Bangladeshi Worker Safety, which is completely voluntary. The only ramification for failing to abide by safety standards is to get kicked out of the Alliance, and workers in Bangladesh don’t think this will be enough of an incentive to improve standards.
As a consumer (who consumes a whole lot, if we’re being honest), I feel an immense responsibility to get brands to sign onto the Accord. So, what can you do to help? If you’re a student attending a college or university, the United Students Against Sweatshops is running a campaign to push collegiate brands to sign onto the Accord. As an organization on 150 campuses across the country, this campaign has the potential to impact a large segment of the Bangladeshi garment industry. Over the course of the 17 years that USAS has been in existence, students have come to the realization that individual boycotts are nowhere near as effective as putting direct pressure onto the brands themselves to change their practices, and have a great track record to show for it.
If you’re not a student, then the best thing you can do is pressure brands like Walmart and Gap to take real action. Write letters, call into their offices, and write into your local media about why you believe every person in the world, regardless of where they live, has the right to a workplace where they don't have to be afraid of burning alive or having their ceilings collapse on top of them.
During that first day in Bangladesh when we talked with victims and family members of those who died in the Tazreen and Rana Plaza disasters, I felt numb. Not numb in the sense that I was unfeeling, but numb in the sense that if I let myself simply focus on the workers’ stories instead of taking notes and completing assignments, I wouldn’t be able to dig myself back out of the deep hole of sadness and guilt. The fact that these workers died so violently because I just needed my shopping fix kept spinning around in my head. I knew that this delegation wasn’t about me or my own mental battles, but I couldn’t help but feel paralyzingly responsible for these atrocities.
Over the course of the trip, we formed some pretty amazing relationships with union leaders who have been working in garment factories since their early teens, and one of the things that struck me was how proud workers were of the garments they produced. One of the students on the delegation from Syracuse University wore a Syracuse T-shirt during one of our factory visits where they made collegiate apparel. As soon as they saw the shirt, workers ran up to him, excitedly pointing and smiling at the fact that their handiwork was being worn and appreciated. Workers understand that when consumers buy their products, they are more likely to stay employed, and at the end of the day, a sweatshop job is better than no job.
Through years of research and campaigning, USAS has come to understand that brands are the only ones with the real power to drastically improve the working conditions of these workers. But that’s not to say that I am bereft of all responsibility, either. If I am going to give my money to the very corporations that are the reason young women and children are dying in garment factories around the world, then I need to do everything I can in order to ensure that these corporations know they can’t take my money without listening to me.
We, the consumers, are the reason that these brands exist in the first place. We collectively have the strategic leverage to make them listen. Not only that, but we have the responsibility to make them listen, especially when their own workers don’t have the power to do so. Shopping will always be something I love, but having heard the stories from the workers who make the clothes I wear every day, I know that I have a responsibility to make things right.