Where Are We Really At With Worker's Rights In The Fashion Industry Today?

by: Rosie Dalton | 2 years ago | Features

Image: garment workers in Cambodia. Image source.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,138 people. So in light of this very sombre anniversary, we’re currently contemplating where we're really at with human rights in the global garment industry and what more needs to be done overall. Fortunately, there are a number of positive developments that have occurred during this time, but there are also plenty of areas in which the industry is still lacking. 

On a positive note, more than 200 apparel brands, retailers and importers from over 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia have signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh Accord since Rana Plaza. By doing so, they have joined two global trade unions, eight Bangladesh trade unions and four NGO witnesses in banding together to help prevent unnecessary disasters such as that which happened on April 24, 2013. A five-year independent, legally binding agreement between global brands and retailers and trade unions, the Accord is designed to build a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready Made Garment (RMG) Industry. But there are still plenty of major international brands that have not yet signed the Accord, which means there is still a fairly long way to go overall. As consumers, we can help to push back against this by staying on top of which brands are signatories and which still need to be lobbied in the right direction.

While the Accord is beneficial for worker's rights in Bangladesh though, there are plenty of other nations that deserve our focus too. Research shows that garment workers like Sokhaeng in Cambodia, for example, are only just scraping by on low pay. As a married and not very well educated woman of 27, Sokhaeng’s experiences aren’t all that unique, but are instead reflective of the norm where she works in Cambodia. Although Sokhaeng has a young child, he doesn’t actually live with her and her husband. “He is too young to stay home alone, and the couple cannot access childcare, so Sokhaeng thought it best to leave the child with his grandparents in her home village,” the Garment Worker Diaries explain. “Maybe, when he is older, he will be able to live with them, she says.” Sokhaeng sews non-stop for periods of between four and eight hours at a time and she does so for as little as 3,300 riels (A$1.10) per hour. But Sokhaeng is comparatively lucky, because she earns above the legal minimum wage of 2,700 riels an hour and is also given a meal allowance by her employer.

Sadly, Sokhaeng says she rarely feels safe as a result of both the physical environment and the behaviour of management. “Her factory is so cramped, she says, that there is almost no room to walk—if there were an emergency, it would be near impossible for everyone to exit the factory in a safe manner,” her diary reveals. “The air is acrid, full of chemical smells and other pollutants. Her supervisors are domineering— Sokhaeng has reported almost two dozen instances in which a supervisor has yelled at or insulted her or a colleague, with one supervisor saying that Sokhaeng ‘will not have a bright future with [that] careless working style.’” While strong unions could potentially help workers like Sokhaeng negotiate improved working conditions though, her employer is hostile towards union members, so she fears that she will lose her job if she joins.

What real stories like Sokhaeng's demonstrate, then, is that we haven’t really come as far as we should have since the Rana Plaza collapse — which reportedly could have been prevented. According to the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, 3,639 workers refused to enter the eight-story Rana Plaza factory building on the morning of April 24, 2013 because there were large and dangerous cracks in the factory walls. The owner, Sohel Rana, then “brought paid gang members to beat the women and men workers, hitting them with sticks to force them to go into the factory.” Workers were also told that if they didn’t return to work, they wouldn’t be paid for the month of April, which meant no food for them or their children. About 45 minutes after these workers were forced to go in to work at 8am though, a large explosion was heard and the building began to collapse. If the space had not been quite so cramped and the fire exits had been better implemented, we may not have witnessed such catastrophic fatalities. So one has to wonder, then, why factories such as those in which Sokhaeng now works aren’t paying closer attention to details such as these.

Then again, we wouldn’t even have access to stories like Sokhaeng’s if it weren’t for organisations like Microfinance Opportunities and Fashion Revolution working together to disseminate the real stories of garment workers today. Their Garment Worker Diaries project is just one of the ways that education and awareness about the fashion industry supply chain has improved since Rana Plaza. And this can only be considered a positive thing, because with greater knowledge also comes greater power. If it weren’t for organisations like these working tirelessly to make sure that consumers are better informed, then we probably wouldn’t have resources like Well Made Clothes and we certainly wouldn’t be seeing big brands like H&M making commitments to improving workers’ labour conditions in their factories.

Despite this, however, big brands like this do continue to face allegations of child labour or poor working conditions, especially for those women and men working in the cut, make, and sew aspects of their supply chain. So with this in mind then, it's clear they do need to be doing a lot more in order to ensure fair conditions for their workers. Even in the last two weeks of 2016, for instance, the garment workers who made our party dresses in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia, Bangladesh were being arrested by police, and factory owners were sacking workers by the thousands. Fashion Revolution points out that all of this was in response to garments workers’ protests against high rents and low wages — a situation that had rendered many workers unable to pay rent and purchase daily necessities like food, basic clothing, and medicine. Which should come as little surprise, really, given that the minimum wage in Bangladesh is a measly $68 a month.

This situation has inspired the Bangladesh Government to take action, with the Minister of Commerce Tofael Ahmed announcing that they would ensure rents in the Ashulia area would not increase for three years. However Microfinance Opportunities’ Garment Worker Diaries shows that this isn’t really helping, with current rent levels demanding an average 40% of the value of a monthly paycheck and driving garment workers to accumulate debt in order to provide basic necessities for their families. And these are just cases that we actually know about. As Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2017 found, the average score for all 100 brands surveyed is 49 out of 250, which proves that there are plenty of brands whose operations are carried out behind closed doors as well. 

With all of this in mind then, it is clear that — while we have seen some positive developments since Rana Plaza — there is still a great deal to be done. Yes, the Bangladesh Accord has now come into play and certain big brands have committed to improving worker conditions across the board. The Fashion Transparency Index 2017 has also found an improvement in brand transparency, with 32 out of 100 brands now publishing their supplier lists. And organisations like this are sharing the real stories of these workers with us consumers, which in some cases, reflects an improvement. That said though, safety conditions could definitely still be improved in many factories, while lots of sub-contracted factories are also allowed to fly under the radar. On top of this, the cost of living is far too much for many garment workers to sustain on their current wages. So as consumers, it’s important for us to be mindful of these issues and to personally investigate which brands are dedicated to actually doing something about the issue. Which is something you can do by joining the movement and asking: #WhoMadeMyClothes

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