The true cost of our clothes

Within a few decades, Bangladesh has become the second largest garments producer worldwide. Millions of people are sewing clothes that are then sold for a few dollars in wealthy countries. These cheap prices go along with poor working conditions, as the world discovered when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, trapping thousands of workers. Since then, the safety has improved, but the conditions are still abusive, especially for women who are the main victims of this rampant globalization.

Savar, in the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It is Wednesday, April 24 2013 and the workers of the Rana Plaza garment factory are in line to get in. The previous day, a large crack appeared in the wall and the authorities ordered the evacuation of the building. The factory managers, however, found it to be safe and convinced their employees to go back to work. Just before 9 a.m., the 9-story-building is overcrowded. There is a short power cut, which is common in this neighbourhood, but as soon as the electrical generators are switched on again, the building starts to shake. It finally collapses, claiming the lives of 1138 people wedged under tons of concrete, and seriously injuring over 2000.

The Rana Plaza collapse was the biggest disaster to have hit Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, but not the first. In 2012, at least 117 people died in the Tazreen factory fire. More recently, in July 2017, dozens of workers were killed after a boiler exploded in a garment factory. In a few decades, this overpopulated country of the Indian subcontinent has become the second largest producer of clothes in the world, second to China. This quick growth, however, has been dramatic in human terms, as it resulted in many poorly constructed, unsafe factories.

This catastrophe contributed to an increased awareness as to the true cost of these affordable clothes sold in Western countries. To avoid similar tragedy, 200 global brands, including Primark and Marks & Spencer, signed on May 2013 the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This safety pact with retailers and trade unions aims to build a safe and ethical Bangladeshi ready-made garment (RMG) industry. But poor constructions are only the tip of the iceberg. Miserable working conditions are a reflection of just how dramatic this industry in Bangladesh truly is.

Thousands of workers and their unions rallied across Bangladesh on April 24th 2014, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka. (PHOTO CC/ SOLIDARITY CENTER)

Safety has improved since 2013…

Johana is a fashion designer at a garment manufacturer. She frequently visits factories throughout Bangladesh and explains that most of them have been rebuilt since 2013 to comply with the brands’ requirements. “Most of the international brands are asking for labels, otherwise they do not want to produce in the factories.” Social compliance has become one of the main concerns of brands, who do not want to see their names related to human losses. “Retailers are sending the compliance teams to check the building safety, to verify that workers have access to bathrooms and clean water”, Johana says, “there is really a pre- and post- Rana Plaza.”

Same remark for Steve Needham from ILO Bangladesh (International Labour Organization), the United Nations agency that promotes decent labour standards. “Large companies which can afford safety compliance are getting bigger, embracing new technology and going green. Meanwhile, smaller companies which are unable to carry out the required safety upgrades have closed,” explains the Dhaka-based labour expert. These measures have potentially saved the lives of thousands of workers. Indeed, the poor and abusive working conditions in the RMG industry are not simply the effects of a few rogue factory owners looking to make profits. It is as well the responsibility of global brands and a Bangladeshi government, who closed their eyes on these wrongdoings.

… but working conditions still abusive

Dr. Geert de Neve is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sussex, England. With his fellow professor Dr. Rebecca Prentice, they conducted a study published on November 2017, that shows despite these improvements, “fast fashion” is still putting the health and well-being of workers at risk. In their research, they reveal that “long working hours, physical exhaustion, intense work rhythms (maybe, “an intense working pace”), harassment, and an absence of representation are all issues that remain invisible.”

Thus, gender discrimination is far from being hidden, despite approximately 80% of the workers being women, according to the World Bank. “The garment sector has provided an opportunity for many women from predominantly poor, rural backgrounds to find employment in the formal economy,” explains Steve Needham, “but while the workers on the sewing lines may be predominantly female, the supervisors are almost all men.”

This power structure leads de facto to tremendous abuses, such as sexual harassment and threats of violence. Supervisors are more likely to initiate inappropriate behaviours, like touching the shoulders of their female colleagues, highlighting their mistakes, using vulgar language and pushing them to work harder. A study conducted in 2014 by the American NGO Democracy International in 150 factories found that 34% of the respondents had been harassed by their supervisors.

The situation is not better for pregnant women. Human Right Watch (HRW) carried out a study in 2015 of several factories throughout the country. The Bangladesh Labour Act entitles 16 weeks of maternity benefits, out of which 8 weeks should be taken after the birth. Many women testified that they were often humiliated when they asked for their benefits, given too little money or even forced to resign before they gave birth. “Unemployment can be really horrific for them, as they are mostly underqualified and out of poverty only thanks to their jobs,” explains Mr. Needham.

Multi-purpose building factory producing for an European brand. In Bangladesh, 80% of the ready-made garment industry’s workers are unqualified women from rural communities. (PHOTO CC/ NYU STERN BHR)

Moreover, workers who dare to get involved in workers’ unions put themselves at risk. Some reported to HRW that both managers and some “thugs” were assaulting union organizers. “In November 2017, there were approximatively 640 unions, but the number of unionised workers only stands at about 5% of the RMG workforce,” claims Mr. Needham. A high level of mistrust remains between employers and workers and many unions do not have the capacity to operate effectively.

80% of Bangladeshi economy is generated by the fashion industry. So, the government may have a strong interest in making it work and being attractive to foreign investors. Improvements have been made but it is not enough, yet. As Johana states, “it is one of the numerous paradoxes of this country, where the most grinding poverty is alongside all these clothes sewed for richer people.”

By Anouch Bezelgues on Thursday, December 14th 2017

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