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It was business as usual in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh’s Dhaka District on April 24, 2013. Hundreds of garment workers reported to work like always. But the day before, they’d noticed an unsettling sight: cracks in the walls of the multi-story building. Still, the laborers were told to return to work the next morning.
That decision proved catastrophic.
The plaza — home to clothing factories, apartments, stores, and a bank — crumbled with the workers inside. It now has the horrific distinction of being the site of the deadliest garment factory disaster ever. More than 1,100 people died during the Rana Plaza collapse, and thousands more were injured.
So, what does that catastrophe have to do with consumers in the US? A number of Western companies, from Nike to Ivanka Trump to H&M, source labor from Bangladesh. Specifically, Zara, Walmart, Benetton, and Mango had all produced apparel in Rana Plaza factories. And more than 120,000 pounds of clothing from The Children’s Place had been produced at the plaza during the eight months before the building fell.
After the disaster, murder charges were brought against 38 people connected, and more than 200 apparel companies from 20 countries signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to prevent similar tragedies from happening. The signatories include American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, Zara, and H&M.
In 2018, Bangladeshi garment workers and their advocates have made inroads. A report released Tuesday by Mark Anner, director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State, says the accord has made more than 2.5 million laborers safer. On the same day, corporate and labor leaders met at the Ford Foundation in New York to review the predicament of Bangladesh’s garment workers today.
Challenges remain. Although working conditions have improved, wages are stagnant and overtime is the norm, due to fast fashion’s tight production deadlines. Now the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), which helped coordinate the Ford event, is urging apparel companies to show a deeper commitment to protecting workers’ rights.
As a result of the accord, 97,000 of 132,000 hazards at factories in Bangladesh have been eliminated, Anner found. An additional 12,000 hazards have reportedly been addressed. They just await review by the accord’s independent group of inspectors.
“To make this degree of progress in five years is really, really quite significant and important,” Anner says.
Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, agrees. She traveled to Bangladesh in 2011 while doing research for her book. When Rana Plaza collapsed, she wasn’t surprised.
“One thing that’s very unusual about the garment industry in Bangladesh — you have factories in tall office buildings that were not built for manufacturing,” she says. “You have factories in very obviously shoddily constructed buildings. I think for me, it was clear. You could just see it: These were buildings that were not built to code.”
From 2014 to 2018, the number of factories in multipurpose buildings has dropped by 49 percent, from 155 factories to 79 factories. The garment industry is moving out of urban Dhaka to the larger industrial zone of Gazipur, according to Anner’s report, “Binding Power: The Sourcing Squeeze, Workers’ Rights, and Building Safety in Bangladesh Since Rana Plaza.”
One reason the workers have seen improvements is that they’ve organized into unions. Anner found that unions in Bangladesh rose dramatically in the months after the building collapse. As time has passed, however, union activity has been suppressed. About 230 unions launched in Bangladesh from mid-2013 through the end of 2014. But by 2015, the Rana Plaza catastrophe was no longer the foremost issue in the public consciousness, and the government began to stop would-be unions from forming. Still, Anner says there is more organized labor today than there was before the disaster.
“The rate of union growth has been dramatically reduced in recent years,” he says. “It’s an area where much more work needs to be done. Having a union in the workplace is such an important achievement. The union can leverage for higher wages, benefits, and more reasonable working shifts.”
Unions can also train members to identify workplace hazards and report them. If workers are retaliated against as a result, the union can intervene, Anner points out.
Since the fall of Rana Plaza, garment worker deaths haven’t been completely eliminated, according to the ILRF, but they have dropped precipitously. Roughly 40 Bangladeshi garment workers have died, mostly in fires, since the disaster. Compare this to the 2006-2010 period, when nearly 500 garment workers were killed in fires and similar circumstances in Bangladesh.
In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, wages rose only to hold steady. The minimum wage increased from $38 to $68 monthly, but it hasn’t risen in tandem with inflation. A 2016 report from the Global Living Wage Coalition suggested that the living wage in the country should be anywhere from $177 to $214 depending on the region. In Bangladesh and other developing nations, garment work is often described as a form of empowerment for young women, says Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications for the ILRF. But when these women are underpaid, it traps them and their families in a cycle of poverty, she says.
Companies often blame their refusal to pay workers higher wages on efforts to keep up with competitors, but Foxvog questions this claim.
“Wages are such a small part of the actual price of a product,” she says. “They could even double or triple the wages.”
In 2017, Bangladeshi workers for H&M, Gap, and Zara protested for a threefold salary increase. By this year, H&M had promised to pay workers a living wage, but the company has been unclear about its plans to make that happen, leading the Clean Clothes Campaign to call the retailer’s promise a “publicity stunt.”
The Bangladeshi government plays a role in setting wages too. Anner says the country’s competitor in the retail market, Vietnam, has accounted for inflation in its wages, while Bangladesh has not. The average monthly wage in Vietnam is about $168, more than double what Bangladesh pays.
Anner’s report also points the finger at fast fashion for lowering wages for Bangladeshi workers. From 2011 to 2015, the amount of time workers had to finish the production process fell by 8.1 percent. This led to a rise in forced overtime to meet deadlines. It has also led wages to drop since December 2013, when wages were raised.
“Fast fashion is part of the trend that’s putting pressure toward the race-to-the-bottom working conditions,” Foxvog says. “There is a very quick turnaround on products. When the orders come in, they can be forced to work overtime without getting proper overtime pay.”
Cline says almost no garment workers in developing nations earn a living wage, or close to it. All too often, sewing clothes for Western brands continues to be a poverty-paying job, she contends.
“While fashion chains continue to get wealthier, people at the very bottom are not getting their fair share,” she says. “In some instances, real wages in the garment industry have actually gone down.”
With these concerns still in the air, the accord is set to sunset next month. Last year, however, most of the companies that signed it decided to expand the agreement and its scope to May 2021. About 55 percent of the current accord members have agreed to do so, but some companies have yet to make the commitment. Abercrombie & Fitch is one of them, Foxvog says.
“We still need 60 more companies to sign to reach that original number [of signatories],” Foxvog says. “Abercrombie & Fitch is one of the most prominent that has not renewed its commitment. We’re asking them to stop dragging their feet and asking them to continue protecting the safety of Bangladeshi garment workers.”
During the week of April 18, activists will join in a Global Week of Action demanding apparel brands to sign the 2018 accord. In the United States, protesters will demonstrate at A&F stores nationally. While Abercrombie wasn’t directly sourcing labor from Rana Plaza, it was previously tied to a garment factory tragedy. In 2010, 29 Bangladeshi workers sewing clothes for A&F, Gap, JC Penney, and other companies died in a factory fire.
Foxvog would also like Ivanka Trump’s apparel company to sign the accord. It never had, but last year, the Washington Post called her company out for it. The paper argued that Trump’s business hasn’t contributed to efforts to make Bangladeshi garment workers safe. Yet it has reaped the benefits of new measures that do so. Trump’s company licenses some production to the clothing distributor G-III Apparel Group, the subsidiaries of which rely on Bangladeshi labor.
“Several months ago, ILRF contacted Ivanka Trump’s clothing line to urge them to join the accord, but they never responded,” Foxvog says. “We urge Ivanka to stop being a free rider on safety and actually sign the accord.”
After the Rana Plaza collapse, many Western retailers denied having a connection to the facility. That turned out to be untrue, but Cline doesn’t necessarily think these companies were lying.
“One of the reasons Rana Plaza was such a watershed moment is because it became clear that fashion brands didn’t know where their products were being made,” she says. “Their supply chains had gotten so large and out of their own control, they didn’t know. Now there is a genuine move toward transparency, so there are more brands now who share a public list of suppliers or make that information available on their website to their customers.”
Asked what consumers can do to make a difference, Anner says that boycotts work only when there’s a specific goal in question. For example, if a company refused to pay wages to workers it had dismissed, a good boycott goal would be to stop patronizing the company until it did. He also encourages consumers to ask retailers about the labor rights of garment workers.
“Consumers have their favorite brands,” he says “They should be talking to the manager and asking really tough questions about what conditions the clothes are made in, and if it was made in Bangladesh, is the company committed to paying a living wage?”
Should consumers simply stop buying clothing made in Bangladesh to sidestep a system that violates workers’ rights? Not so fast, Foxvog says. Even in the US, wage theft is a problem in garment factories, and workers toil away in what are essentially sweatshops.
But Foxvog supports buying less clothing, or buying clothes from secondhand stores, small retailers, or artisan friends.
“Educating consumers is incredibly important,” she says. “Consumers just don’t have a lot of great choices.”