Global Human Rights Defence

The impacts of fast fashion and garment industries in Bangladesh
The impacts of fast fashion and garment industries in Bangladesh

Author: Martina Trimarchi

Department: Bangladesh Team

The aim of the Fashion Revolution Week

The Fashion Revolution Week is the annual campaign bringing together the world’s largest fashion activism movement. This year, from Monday 18th to Sunday 24th April 2022, the revolution week wanted to advocate for a just and equitable fashion system for people and the environment. Fashion Revolution was founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 in Bangladesh, and since then, the global movement decided to spread the idea of a global fashion industry that respects and restores the environment and human rights. This movement was created by different professionals such as designers, brands, academics, writers, business leaders, and workers. The idea is to end human and environmental exploitation during fashion processes, thus guaranteeing safe, dignified working conditions and living wages for all people in the supply chain (Fashion Revolution, 2022).

But what happened in 2013? And why in Bangladesh? First of all, Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of ready-made garments in the world. The growth of the industry has been dramatic and by 2013-14 it exported garments worth more than US$24 billion and employed some four million workers in 4,536 factories. Until 2015, garments accounted for almost 80 percent of the country’s export earnings and contributed more than 10 percent of GDP. The Rana Plaza was an eight-story commercial building located in the suburb Dhaka, Bangladesh, where five garment factories made clothes for major brands around the world. Dhaka is one of the largest clothing-producing cities in the world and, at the time, hosted roughly 5,000 factories (Human Rights Watch, 2015). On April 23, 2013, garment workers were removed from the Rana Plaza building when cracks appeared in the building walls. However, the owner relied on the fact that the building was structurally sound, as affirmed by an engineer inspection. The next morning, on April 24, workers continued to express concern about the safety of the Rana Plaza building and, still, the management ordered them to continue their jobs without complaining, threatening their job positions if they refused. Early in the workday, the power to the building cut off, the cracks widened, and concrete fell onto workers fastening clothes. Consequently, the building collapsed killing 1,134 workers and maimed more than 2,500 others. People who survived were trapped under the fallen structure with permanent physical injuries, or severe psychological trauma (Grow ensemble, 2021).

According to some experts, the disaster was more than preventable considering the concern expressed by the workers who had noticed and reported the deep cracks. Indeed, parts of the building were constructed without proper permits and the weight of heavy equipment necessary for the activities of the garment factories was more than the structure could support. The accident has to be seen as a big failure and represents the incapacity to respond to known and evident dangers. The garment factory management was as aware of the risks, as well as the owners of the banks and the shops, and despite garment workers being coerced back into the building, the bank and shops located on the lower levels remained evacuated due to the dangers of the cracks discovered the previous day. Unfortunately, factories’ interests in filling orders came before workers’ safety (Grow ensemble, 2021). This was not the first garment industry accident, but its preventability launched it into the spotlight, also considering the impact of the fast fashion industry. When the focus is on fast production, garment workers are forced to produce high quantities for Western brands paying low rates for clothes they will sell for cheap prices. Brands that negotiate prices have the option to go to another factory that will do the work for cheaper, at the expenses of workers. This is precisely what happened and still happens in Bangladesh. Although fashion retailers have a corporate social responsibility to ensure equal treatment in the supply chain, they care much more about gaining profit quickly (Human Rights Pulse, 2020). Prior to the Rana Plaza disaster, safety inspections were intended to just make factories “look good on paper” rather than ensure safety for workers (Human Rights Watch, 2015). As a result of the tragic accident, the Bangladesh Accord on fire and building safety was set up in 2013. This is a legally-binding agreement among workers, managers, and clothing companies that sets forth factory inspection standards as well as complaint mechanisms for violations. The Accord helps to ensure that no worker needs to fear fire, building collapses or other accidents that can be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures. Over 220 companies signed the five-year Accord, and by May 2018, the work of the Accord had contributed to significantly safer workplaces for millions of Bangladeshi garment workers.

While the focus of the post-Rana Plaza reforms has been on factory safety, little has been done to address poor working conditions. Garment worker exploitation should also be understood as an international human rights problem. Reports demonstrate that workers in Bangladesh are the lowest paid in the world and often earn less than the minimum wage set by the government in Bangladesh (FairWear, 2018). Thus, this system creates the foundation for labour abuse and discrimination. According to Human Rights Watch, workers in Dhaka face serious reprisals and abuses especially among women who are often the target of such brutalities, or they see their maternity leave denied. Most trade union leaders and workers told Human Rights Watch that many abuses and violations are simply not noticed, ignored, or analysed superficially by the inspections carried out by buyers. Many raised concerns about pay and benefits, such as late payment of wages and bonuses, denial of overtime payments, or bad treatment during work such as having to work under pressure, physical and verbal abuse. Moreover, workers complained about unsanitary conditions in the workplace, particularly because they could only drink dirty water. Besides, they also had to deal with polluted air. Many of them end up with health problems or diseases such as constant fatigue, anaemia, eye and ear pain, diarrhoea, dysentery, urinary tract infection and reproductive health problems due to overwork and the low standards of the working environment in Bangladesh readymade garment (RMG) sector. Most factories do not have adequate ventilation and exhaust fans that leave the garment workers exposed to toxic substances and dust. Furthermore, raw materials contain dust and fibre particles that hang in the air, as well as the toxic substance emitted from coloured clothes (Shakil, 2017). However, owners are not always willing to pay overtime or offer assistance in case of injuries or illnesses. They also pass orders on to subcontractors, who are even less careful on compliance because they rely on these short-term orders. Some of them even employ underage workers working as slaves. The fact is that people need these jobs in garment factories because it is considered a good opportunity in order to earn money for the livelihood of the family. Many young women and men migrate from the poor areas of the country, mainly for economic or climatic reasons, to find a better life in the capital Dhaka.

The primary responsibility for protecting the rights of workers rests with the Bangladeshi government. Despite recent reforms, it still falls short of meeting international standards in important respects. For example, Section 195 of the Bangladesh Labour Act of 2006 (amended in 2013) outlaws numerous but not sufficient provisions for workers. In particular, article 195 (b) states that “no employer shall dismiss, discharge, remove from employment, […] a worker, or threaten to injure him in respect of his employment by reason that the worker is […] to become [… ] a member or officer of a trade union” (Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006).  Bangladesh has also ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and is required to protect the rights contained in them. Along with the government, there are associations such as the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), and the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), that should ensure compliance with such provisions and sanction companies that abuse workers’ rights. However, factory owners can carry considerable political clout in Bangladesh and this can act as a barrier to holding them to account for violating workplace rights (Human Rights Watch, 2015).

After the collapse of Rana Plaza, a number of citizens’ initiatives were founded to emphasise the urgency of ethical working conditions for the garment industry and demanded compensation for the families affected by the tragedy. By 2015, $30 million was paid out to family members and victims of the disaster funded by donations from individuals and fashion brands. This event triggered a larger conversation about how our purchases impact the livelihoods of others and the need to redefine the impact of the fashion industry. It is widely recognised that pressure from buyers can push factory owners to respect workers’ rights. Global organisations and various consumer-centred movements have brought attention to the working conditions involved in the manufacturing of our clothes. In 2014, Fashion Revolution incorporated the hashtags #whomademyclothes to raise public consciousness of the working conditions in fashion. We can choose to support brands that respect the dignity of workers, prioritise the health of the planet and persuade other people to do the same.  Even though factory fires and harmful working conditions are still the reality for people working in clothing factories in low-income countries, we as consumers can make the change to create a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry retailers.

Bibliography

Accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh (2018). Retrieved on 23 April 2022 from  https://bangladeshaccord.org/about

Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006. Retrieved on 24 April 2022 from https://www.ilo.org

Fair Wear. (2018). Bangladesh raises minimum wages – is it enough?. Retrieved on 22 April 2022 from https://www.fairwear.org/stories/bangladesh-raises-minimum-wages-is-it-enough/

Fashion Revolution (2022). Retrieved on 23 April 2022 from https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/

Grow ensemble (2021). The Rana Plaza Collapse: What Happened & What it Means for the Fashion Industry. Retrieved on 21 April 2022 from https://growensemble.com/rana-plaza/

Human Rights Pulse. (2020). Retrieved on 21 April 2022 from  https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/garment-worker-exploitation-an-international-human-rights-problem

Human Rights Watch. (2015). Whoever Raises their Head Suffers the Most, Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh’s Garment Factories. N°978-1-6231-31746. Retrieved on 22 April 2022 from https://www.hrw.org

Shakil, A. (2017). Health and Safety Situations of Garments Workers in Developing Countries: A Study on Bangladesh. British Journal of Business Design & Education, ISSN (Print): 2222-7426, ISSN (Online): 2222-8412, Vol 10 No 01, bjbde.org. Retrieved on 24 April 2022 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/350470136_Health_and_Safety_Situations_of_Garments_Workers_in_Developing_Countries_A_Study_on_Bangladesh

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