Five Years Later: Who makes your Clothes?
Gross. Another boring, pithy article we're too tired to read, imploring us to do things we can't afford to do in the first place. Next.
No. This article isn't like that. Specifically because, as I write this, I very earnestly get it. We're young, frustrated, and trying to build our own careers while struggling between paying for Adobe software or eating actual food this month. Life could be a hell of a lot worse (and I mean way worse) - but still, it isn't easy.
At an eventual point in our budget-conscious lives, we will make the decision to purchase and wear clothes. And due to this inevitable reality, I wanted to take a moment to educate you on the implications - positive or negative - of the choices we make.
Last week marked the 5-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza Building Factory collapse in Bangladesh, on the outskirts of Dhaka.
On the morning of April 24, 2013 at 8:00 a.m., 3,639 workers refused to enter the eight-story factory building, voicing their concerns about large and dangerous cracks in the factory walls. In response the owner, Sohel Rana, brought paid gang members to beat the workers, hitting them with sticks and forcing them to go into the factory despite their warranted concern. Managers of the five factories housed in Rana Plaza also told the frightened workers if they did not return to work, there would be no money to pay them for the month of April, eviscerating their ability to buy food for themselves and their children. At the time, the over 4 million (mostly female) workers employed by the garment industry in Bangladesh earned an income of about $38/month, compared to other non-fashion factory workers' $100/month.
The Rana Plaza factory workers were forced to enter the building at 8:00 a.m.
At 8:45 a.m. the electricity went out in the plaza - as a result, the factories’ five generators subsequently kicked on. Almost immediately, workers felt the eight-story building begin to move. A loud explosion followed as the building collapsed, pancaking downward.
1,137 people were confirmed dead at Rana Plaza. A year later, over 200 remained missing.
At the time of the plaza collapse, eighty percent of the workers were young women, either 18, 19 or 20 years of age. Their standard working shift was 13 to 14 ½ hours, from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 or 10:30 p.m., totalling 90 to 100 hours a week with two days off per month. Young “helpers” earned a wage of 12 cents an hour, while “junior operators” took home 22 cents an hour and senior sewers received 24 cents an hour, totalling at most $12.48 a week. In 2014, as a result of heavy protests and global outrage, garment workers received a 77% wage increase to $67.40/month, which is still much lower than was demanded, or is received in other industries for similar work.
In the plaza itself, brands such as Joe Fresh in Canada, French retailer Carrefour, Primark, Benetton and Matalan were linked to the factories - Joe Fresh was the first to act after the accident, pledging to compensate the families of victims and sending investigators to Bangladesh upon news of the tragedy.
It's important to state that the events of April 24th were not accidental - in neglecting integral workers-rights complaints for far too long, these large brands allowed thousands of underpaid workers to be murdered for the sake of fast fashion. This, disgustingly, is what we should think of when we hear the term "fashion victim" echoing in the halls of our developed nations. At what cost? Who is making your clothes? Who is suffering under the weight of your newest purchases?
The founder of Zara, Amancio Ortega, is the 3rd richest person in the world with a fortune of $64.1 billion. Yet the company itself has experienced similar outrage this year, with garment workers in Turkey slipping notes into their clothing on allegations of not being paid for their work. As a result of widespread media coverage in North America, Zara has launched a fund to compensate unpaid workers in response to these outcries. Though this is a great step forward, it only matters if the brand follows through; correcting the problem itself instead of the visible-to-us symptoms. The fact that people weren't paid in the first place is appalling - and frankly, with so many other brands built on higher ethical standards and transparency, why are we still giving Zara our money?
Now, the solution - What can we do to move the dial? Talk about it. Use your voice - disrupt your social media feed and tell brands en-masse that we will not stand for the violation of human rights. Additionally, supporting organizations like the Model Alliance, shopping vintage, and buying from brands like Everlane, Triarchy, People Tree, Patagonia (they have a stunning, transparent strategy for environmental and social responsibility), and even Reformation can have a brilliant impact on how other brands look to grow. Bottom line, if our consumer dollars go to sustainability, transparency, and equality on the labour front, other brands will follow suit. And though it would be amazing if people put people first just because it's the right thing to do, we should work on making a difference in all the ways we can.
Our cover image is of Kalpona Akter: Former child worker turned Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). For more ways to help please visit the model alliance website, explore the fashion revolution 10-point plan, and support sustainable businesses and brands in your area. This article is just the beginning of our future-facing coverage, so please reach out if you have questions or suggestions.