On April 24, 2013, thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh entered the visibly crumbling, eight-story Rana Plaza retail and apparel manufacturing complex out of which they worked. Despite having alerted supervisors to the structural cracks in the walls and receiving police mandates to evacuate the building after it had been deemed unsafe, workers were forced to complete orders. When Rana Plaza collapsed, 1,100 people died. Thousands more were injured.
While Rana Plaza certainly wasn’t the first garment industry catastrophe — just months prior, also in Bangladesh, the Tazreen Fashions factory fire resulted in the deaths of over 100 people — it was the deadliest, garnering global attention and galvanizing a slew of grassroots, citizen-fuelled movements calling for widespread labour rights reform, improved health and safety regulations, and consumer awareness. “This was an avoidable disaster that speaks volumes about how life is valued in the face of this [fashion system] that’s predicated on speed and scale at all costs,” says Aditi Mayer, a sustainable fashion blogger and labour rights activist. The dehumanizing and lethal effect of fashion’s culture of disposability and consumer appetite for constant newness became impossible to ignore. But how much progress has really been made since then?
Today, many factory buildings in Bangladesh are structurally safer. But inside, workers are still subjected to unprotected use of chemical substances and sandblasting, long hours, verbal and physical abuse, and sexual harassment. In fact, a 2020 report from the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations states that labour rights “have declined precipitously in recent years." One Bangladeshi labour organizer quoted in the report said that ‘‘the environment for workers has never been worse.”
Ayesha Barenblat — the founder and CEO of Remake, a non-profit community working to change the industry’s harmful practices through education and advocacy — points out that although 220 foreign brands signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, which promises to engage global trade unions in working toward a safer and healthier garment and textile industry, the legal agreement is set to expire this May. She fears the short lifespan of this accord is representative of a larger and fundamental issue, wherein brands are quick to seek out temporary and incomplete "fixes" after the initial shock of industry-related tragedies that do little to enact meaningful change.
The coronavirus pandemic, Barenblat says, also had devastating effects, not only on the well-being of garment workers but also their ability to work at all. Countless retailers have refused to pay for goods they asked suppliers to make before stores were shuttered and sales plummeted in March 2020. Soon after receiving reports of cancelled orders that were already in production, Remake launched a petition demanding fashion companies honour their financial commitments. Their #PayUp campaign went viral over the summer, helping to recoup at least $15 billion owed to garment factories worldwide. Even so, many brands are still not following through on their cancelled or delayed contracts despite returning to profitability in the fall, and garment workers are being underpaid on a massive scale or facing job loss as a result. Gender-based violence is also on the rise amidst the dismissals, with workers in Bangladesh testifying to the Workers Rights Consortium that they were forced to resign under the threat of violence as a means for employers to minimize severance obligations.
After lockdowns brought demonstrations to halt last summer over the rollback of labour rights caused by COVID-related order cancellations, garment workers in Myanmar played a leading role in organizing increasingly dangerous protests following the country’s unlawful military coup in February. While talking to Vogue Business, Ma Moe Sandar Myint, chairwoman of the Federation of Garment workers, said that statements condemning the military coup are just one step in a series of actions that Western brands have the power to take to put pressure on factory owners to stop punishing workers for participating in pro-democracy strikes and protests. Yet despite calls from trade union leaders for international fashion brands who work with suppliers in the country to come to the aid and defence of the workers who are losing their voices, jobs, and, in some cases, their lives to this struggle, the industry has responded quietly, if at all.
"The current dominant fast fashion model will always exploit those that are the labor behind the label.”
Aditi Mayer, sustainable fashion blogger & labor rights activist
This disregard for human rights is further illuminated by companies who have prioritized their own business interests in Asia over the safety of garment workers in countries like China, even as international scrutiny mounts over the alleged human-rights crimes in its cotton-rich Uyghur region. According to reports, at least one million Muslims have been forced into labour camps; however, when H&M posted a statement expressing “deep concerns” over the situation and declaring it would no longer source cotton directly from the region, this action was met with calls for a boycott. Soon, H&M products were missing from the country’s popular e-commerce platforms. Corporations like Inditex and PVH have since removed their initial statements on the issue from their websites.
According to a 2018 Oxfam report, it takes four days for a major fashion CEO to earn what a garment worker will earn in their lifetimes (the majority of this labour is carried out by women). These are problems that obviously cannot be fixed with a public statement or a one-off donation to an organization. These are the systemic social justice issues compromising the core of the fashion industry, and they come at a tremendous human cost to its Asian workforce. “What I want to see when brands claim they want to help anti-racist movements is [for them] to really interrogate their own supply chains,” Mayer says. “It’s one thing to donate to anti-racism organizations or to call for solidarity, but it’s another thing to see how the entire edifice of the current dominant fast fashion model will always exploit those that are the labour behind the label.”
For the past 30 years, as localized manufacturing processes were lost to the cost-slicing benefits of off-shore production, the evolving geography of fashion supply chains has been determined largely by wherever environmental regulation is weak and labour laws are even weaker. Much of this capitalist system, Mayer explains, revolves around the potential for exploitation in countries that have been destabilised by colonial violence and imperialism. “Brands are looking to produce as much as they can, as fast as they can, and as cheap as they can, which means going to places around the world whose vulnerable populations undergo resource extraction, whether that’s their labour or their natural environment as a means for infinite growth and success.”
And while these companies benefit from touting inclusivity and women’s empowerment in marketing and advertising, their ruthless production methods and punishing delivery schedules make it impossible to operate their supply chains in accordance to these values. For example, in 2019, the same year it declared its “year of the woman,” Nike received the worst rating in the Clean Clothes Campaign’s Tailored Wages report which stated that the brand could “show no evidence of a living wage being paid to any workers” — workers who we know are predominantly female.
However, both Barenblat and Mayer caution against the portrayal of workers as victims, pointing to how the sustainable fashion sector has its own issues of racism and white saviourism, where cause-related marketing connects products to ethical issues in a way that makes customers think their purchase is helping solve the mistreatment of the garment workers. This notion of “buying into global moralism” as a feel-good model of consumer behaviour leads to women of colour always being seen “in conjunction with their labour,” Mayer states, as though “that is the totality of their personhood.” Instead, she says, we need to think about wealth redistribution not only in terms of wages, but also as it relates to the value created by non-white artists and designers whose identities get lost in the production line.
Considering that garment worker lives continue to be damaged, devalourised, and lost to the manufacturing work upon which they are fully dependent, it’s fair to say that little has changed in the eight years since Rana Plaza collapsed. In fact, it’s getting worse. Unless the industry rebuilds itself, with principles of fairness and equality at its core, only its most oppressive structures will continue to stand strong. But we shouldn’t need another newsworthy catastrophe in order for brands to be held to account for these perpetual failings. We can’t afford to lose more lives in the pursuit of fashion.