Eight years ago today, the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing at least 1,134 garment workers and injuring over than 2,500 more. The building in Dhaka, Bangladesh had housed five garment factories, and the incident remains the deadliest factory accident in history.
The day before, workers had reported cracks in the walls to the building managers, but their concerns were ignored, and they were told they would be fired from their jobs if they didn’t carry on working as usual. The tragic events that unfolded the following day caught the attention of the world, and for a brief moment, the dangerous realities and inhumane conditions that garment workers face were finally thrust into the limelight.
The environmental degradation caused by the fashion industry is often cited in calls for a switch to more sustainable modes of consumption; relatively neglected are the human costs of this highly exploitative industry. The Rana Plaza disaster came to represent what happens when we allow for capitalist logics to prevail over human rights, and profits to be put before people – and although the number of garment factory disasters have been decreasing since Rana Plaza, there is much more work to be done.
A Different Kind of Development
With around 80 billion pieces of new clothing consumed each year—a 400 percent increase in the last 20 years—the demand for cheap labour is constantly rising. Globalisation has created a race to the bottom, in which fashion companies in the Global North outsource production to countries with weak labour regulations, weak environmental protections, and the cheapest production costs to maximise profit margins; this competition puts pressure on garment factory owners and bosses to undercut their production prices in order to attract business.
The conditions of garment workers are therefore inherently political. One in eight workers worldwide work in the fashion and textile industry, and 80 percent of these workers are women. The vast majority are located in the Global South.
The mainstream view of the garment and textiles industry is that it is one that provides development to regions of the Global South through employment opportunities – a position that speaks to neoliberal notions of development prioritising faceless economic growth. But inhumane working conditions, the lack of a living wage, unreliable pay, and abuse from managers all characterise the precarious nature of garment workers’ livelihoods, and the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated these issues. Campaigns like Labour Behind the Label have been demanding that multi-million brands, including Primark—one of the brands that admitted using a factory in Rana Plaza—pay up.
Primark was one of many brands that cancelled all orders when the pandemic began, leaving suppliers suddenly without cash, and consequently, workers without a wage.
‘Garment workers have been earning incredibly low wages for decades,’ Meg, Campaigns Director for Labour Behind the Label, told Tribune. ‘93 percent of brands in recent research do not pay a wage that sufficiently covers basic living costs. This makes it impossible for workers to put savings aside, or to build a safety net for themselves and their families.’
Labour Behind the Label estimate that workers are owed up to $5.8 billion in unpaid wages from the first three months of the pandemic alone. ‘The #PayYourWorkers campaign is calling on brands to take action now, to ensure that garment workers are never again left so vulnerable,’ Meg adds.
The human cost of cheap clothing cannot be underestimated. In India, garment workers earn less than half of a living wage; their peers in Sri Lanka bring home 13 percent of one. The European Parliament has recognised these conditions as slave labour. Since the Rana Plaza disaster, at least 109 more accidents have put garment workers’ lives at risk. And rising job insecurity makes all exploitation easier to get away with.
Of course, this problem is not confined to the Global South. Multi-billion dollar company Boohoo was found to have been paying their workers in Leicester as little as £3.50 an hour just last year. A review conducted by Alison Levitt QC found the monitoring of Boohoo’s factories to be ‘inadequate’: buildings were in ‘deplorable’ conditions; many had locked fire doors, or no decent drinking water.
Dr Rebecca Prentice, reader in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex, argues that the increasingly competitive nature of international trade and foreign investment driven by neoliberalism is the primary reason for these abuses.
‘One way of looking at the industry is that it produces ill-health and depletes workers’ bodies as a fundamental feature of its business model – particularly in the highly competitive fast-fashion production that Bangladesh has been so successful at,’ Rebecca says. ‘I would argue that our understanding of worker ‘safety’ has to be more expansive, not just focused on preventing catastrophes that damage the reputations of fashion brands, but with a genuine concern for worker wellbeing.’
Changing the System
The dangers faced by garment workers worldwide cannot be divorced from deregulation. As Rebecca says, ‘You can’t have labour standards without labour rights. When we’re thinking about workers’ rights in the global garment industry, we need to consider how and where this global production system is relying upon labour practices that are simply bad for workers’ health and wellbeing – and what kinds of regulations are needed to prevent this.
‘This pertains not only to Bangladesh, and so we need to take a global view from the top down, regulating the multinational companies that source from countries in the Global South. At the same time, we need to think from the bottom up, to consider how workers can have a stronger collective voice.’
While there have been gains made in the sustainable fashion movement in recent years, the prevailing focus on environmentalism commonly leads to individualised solutions—a problem with much environmentalist discourse more widely—which aim to alter consumer habits, rather than addressing the structural factors which render the industry inherently exploitative.
‘The material conditions of garment workers, including here in the UK, are some of the most dangerous in the world. What’s required is ripping the entire industry from its roots and starting again,’ says Frances Leach, a writer and researcher on the global garment industry. ’The abuses of human rights do not start and end with the outsourced workers in the Global South: it’s at the top of the brands, through the distribution chain to the people who sell the clothes for minimum wage.’
An intersectional approach must recognise that the commodification of poor Black and Brown women in the Global South into a labour supply to be expended is tied to the system of racial capitalism, which ranks people’s lives based on their societal position.
But this question of categorisation also runs more deeply. As Frances says, ‘Beyond concerns for workers and the environment, it’s important to examine the fashion industry’s cultural control, and the outsized impact it has when it comes to how people think and feel about their bodies. The fashion industry creates so much pain, particularly for women. It deforms our understanding of gender, sexuality, and race. We have to free ourselves from the fashion industry in its current state, and this can only be done together, not through individual shopping practices.’
Garment workers have remained resilient in their struggle for change and better working conditions. Across the Global South, workers’ dissent and grassroots organising efforts have been frequently met with violence and threats of job termination from their employers. In 2013, Cambodian garment workers went on strike to lobby for a living wage of $160 USD per month. Police responded with violence: four workers were killed, and almost 40 were injured. During the pandemic, garment workers in Myanmar have been at the centre of protests against the military coup.
In these violent circumstances, pushing for systemic change is not an option but an imperative. Grassroots activism efforts are key in the struggle, but the system we are fighting is international, and requires an international resistance.
Only by dismantling the system of globalised racial capitalism will we be able to reshape labour relations and ensure that garment workers have work that is safe, secure, and humane; only then can we create an economy that is human-centred, rather than profit-centred. Tragedies like that of the Rana Plaza disaster are not isolated incidents: they are the predictable endpoints of a system which sees human lives as an opportunity cost.