By Lauren Chaplin
The name of the Bangladeshi factory which collapsed on April 24, 2013, killing 1,138 garment workers, became synonymous with the unethical and exploitative labour practices of the fast fashion industry. But 6 years on, has anything changed?
The situation of garment workers in #Bangladesh 6 years after the Rana Plaza collapse looks grim, with large scale repression of worker protests and a possible roll-back of hard-won progress in factory safety. https://t.co/YQrAxYNTy6 #RanaPlazaNeverAgain #FreedomSafetyLivingWage
— Clean Clothes (@cleanclothes) May 8, 2019
After the collapse
Following the disaster, global brands came together to sign a 5-year agreement designed to improve safety standards in the industry. ‘The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’ provided for independent inspections of workshops and for the establishment of elected health and safety committees in factories across the country. This agreement was renewed for 3 further years in a 2018 Transition Accord, although some of the original signatories – including Abercrombie & Fitch – were noticeably absent. Moreover, although the Accord signalled a step in the right direction, protecting workers from lax building regulations and dangerous working practices, problems remain rife.
Firstly, the reform programme it established is at risk, as factory owners demand ‘a swift and unconditional handover of the Accord’s tasks to national inspection entities’, despite it being widely recognised ‘that Bangladeshi inspection bodies do not yet have the capacity to oversee all of the Accord factories’.
Secondly – and this point bears on the issue of modern slavery – the post-Rana Plaza reforms have failed to resolve the deep-seated disenfranchisement of Bangladeshi textile workers.
The voiceless worker
Although directly attributable to poor construction, the Rana Plaza collapse could have been avoided had workers – who complained about the obvious cracks in the factory walls immediately before the tragedy – been listened to. Instead, they were ignored, with many ‘forcibly’ called back to the production line just hours before the collapse.
At that time, ‘few workers were able to unionise without retribution’, meaning that factory management could ignore concerns with scarce backlash. Unfortunately, little has changed and textile workers remain in a constant state of precarity, vulnerable to exploitation. This was most recently exemplified by the brutal government crackdowns on Bangladesh garment workers who dared to demand a wage of $1 per hour, rejecting the country’s meagre minimum wage.
As reported by The Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labour monitoring organisation:
‘Since December of 2018, at least 65 workers have been arrested and subjected to baseless criminal charges, brought at the behest of factories that supply brands like H&M, Mango and Next. Factories producing for these and other brands have fired as many as 11,600 workers without legal justification, most of whom are unable to find other jobs due to systematic blacklisting. Some factories have even hired thugs to physically assault employees. Meanwhile, widespread violence by the Bangladeshi security forces has resulted in the death of one worker and sowed fear across the industry.’
Implications for modern slavery
Silenced workers mean empowered bosses. The past decade has witnessed a massive acceleration in clothing production, with 60 million people worldwide working in an industry which today produces nearly twice as much as it did 15 years ago. For many, a factory job promises stability not found in informal or agricultural sectors, and a need to escape from poverty ‘drives workers into situations where they can’t say ‘no’ for fear of losing their jobs’.
Fuelled by Western demand for fast fashion and the need to meet tight buyer deadlines, managers compel workers in ‘forced overtime’, and those ‘who protest may be fired and blacklisted from the industry.’ As reported by Verite, an NGO campaigning for fairer working conditions:
‘Workers may work up to 18-hour days, seven days a week in advance of a deadline. In some cases, workers may rely on overtime pay to earn a living wage. Many factories, however, do not adequately compensate workers for overtime, and often underpay wages by taking advantage of unrealistic quota systems or by falsifying overtime records’.
Whilst it should be noted that not every exploitative practice fulfils the International Labour Organisation definition of ‘modern slavery’, which ‘covers a set of specific legal concepts including forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery and slavery-like practices and human trafficking’, the nexus between modern slavery and weak worker’s rights is clear in the context of fashion production.
So, what can you do to tackle this problem?
First, recognise the relationship between the clothes on your back and the sizeable human – and environmental – cost of them. Each step in the manufacturing process – from sourcing raw materials, to fashioning them into clothes, and shipping them to stores the world over – forms another link in a global supply chain, linking you, the consumer, to every producer. Remembering that your clothes aren’t made in a vacuum should impart to you an ethnical responsibility to endeavour to keep that supply chain slavery-free. h
Take notice of this incredible campaign by Fashion Revolution, an organisation demanding greater transparency in the fashion industry, by way of its #whomademyclothes campaign. In the words of its policy director, Sarah Ditty ‘the most powerful thing’ consumers can do is contact brands directly, asking searching questions about their production methods and labour practices. Lobbying the government to properly implement the Modern Slavery Act is also an effective way to drive change – which, 6 years on from Rana Plaza, isn’t happening fast enough.
Lauren Chaplin is a member of René Cassin’s Modern Slavery Campaign Group and an Alum of the RC AJA Fellowship Programme. Lauren recently completed a Masters in Human Rights at University College London, and is a soon-to-be civil liberties lawyer.