The United States has been a bit preoccupied lately. Between our new administration’s extraordinarily rocky start and the nation’s general feelings of impending doom and uncertainty, it can be easy to forget that the rest of the world continues to spin. World news (unless it involves a wall or Russian hacking) has been largely put to the side as we continue to write stories about Trump’s Latest Twitter Tirade. It’s true that we have a lot of domestic problems—big ones. The refugee and Muslim ban has prompted protests nationwide, the EPA was put on radio silence and millions are in danger of losing their healthcare, to say nothing of Trump’s impending supreme court pick. It can be all too easy to overlook the wildfires raging through Chile, Gambia’s new president or the controversial West Bank construction. One international story that seems to have slipped through the Trump-spackled cracks involves the Bangladesh ready-made-garment industry.
You have more in common with the Bangladesh garment industry than you think. If you’ve bought clothes from H&M, Walmart or Gap in the past few years, chances are they were made in Bangladesh. Sharing a border with India and Myanmar, Bangladesh has a multi-billion dollar textile industry that produces ready-made garments at a pace second only to China. The reasons behind this lightning-fast efficiency, sometimes known as “fast fashion,” should be of no surprise: overcrowded buildings, a massive workforce and a government that at best suppresses workers’ rights and at worst imprisons labor activists indefinitely.
Recently, protests in Bangladesh have erupted over low wages in the face of inflation and the rising cost of living. Currently, the minimum wage in Bangladesh is 32 cents an hour, with a monthly minimum wages of about 68 dollars. In late Dec., an organized walkout led to the firing of almost 1500 workers and the indefinite detainment of at least 14 protest leaders and workers. Labor rights group say the mounting arrests and tensions are the worst setback for workers’ rights since the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza.
If you don’t remember the Rana Plaza, then it’s definitely time for a recap. In the spring of 2013, the Rana Plaza, an eight-story building that housed several Western and European clothing factories, began to show signs of deterioration. Large cracks appeared on the sides of the building, and the shops on the lower levels were evacuated. The garment factories on the top floors remained opened, and insisted their employees return to work the following day. The building collapsed and more than 1100 people were killed. It is considered to be the largest garment-factory disaster in history, and it exposed the working conditions of the Bangladesh textile industry and the true cost of fast fashion. Following the tragedy, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium Scott Nova directly called out western manufacturers in The New York Times:
The front-line responsibility is the government’s, but the real power lies with Western brands and retailers, beginning with the biggest players: Walmart, H&M, Inditex, Gap and others. The price pressure these buyers put on factories undermines any prospect that factories will undertake the costly repairs and renovations that are necessary to make these buildings safe.
Local and international outcry quickly prompted some of the brands to campaign for better conditions. Coalitions quickly formed to address the issues, including the Accord for Fire and Building accord on fire and building safety in bangladesh pdf safety headed by H&M and The Alliance For Bangladesh Worker Safety. The Alliance includes brands and corporations that many will recognize, such as Gap, J.C. Penny, L.L. Bean, Target, Walmart and Nordstrom. Their mission statement is clear and brief:
Our vision is that the Alliance will substantially improve worker safety in the ready-made-garment (RMG) industry by upgrading factories, educating workers and management, empowering workers, and building institutions that can enforce and maintain safe working conditions throughout Bangladesh
According to the brands, there has been some progress, such as regular safety inspections and fire safety training—though human rights groups say there is still a lot of work to be done to improve working conditions. Still, people have been paying more attention to factory conditions, whether out of guilt for their 10 dollar maxi-dress, genuine concern or a little of both. The documentary The True Cost brought the price of fast fashion to Netflix, detailing the effects of poor factory conditions on both the workers and the environment. The influence of public interest and the massive monetary power of Western companies seemed to genuinely make a difference for working conditions in Bangladesh.
However, as the years go by since the collapse of the Rana Plaza and the western world turns its attention increasingly inward, some labor activists fear conditions may begin to revert to the way things were before. The recent arrests and unlawful detainment of workers’ rights leaders is a bad sign. Some of the Western brands have expressed concerns over the arrests, though many such as American Eagle Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch have yet to comment. These companies have the power to tell the factories to drop charges and instate a regular wage review system, but four years after the Rana Plaza disaster, their commitment to tolerable working conditions and wages is waning. Our love of cheap, convenient clothing and our disinterest in international news is directly affecting workers in Bangladesh. While it’s true the United States has a lot on its mind, we need to ask what costs were cut in order for us to buy that five dollar crop top. Turning a blind eye to fast fashion is something we are all guilty of doing, but that can change. Ask yourself—If the companies have the power to improve working conditions but are hesitant to engage in real, lasting plans, then who has power over the companies? You, the consumer, have more power than you think.