Recovery efforts continue in Savar, Bangladesh, where last week, an eight-story garment factory building collapsed, taking with it the lives of almost 600 workers. Hundreds more remain missing.
The collapse has been blamed on a shoddily constructed building, which was known to be unsafe for workers. Circumstances like those are indicative of a systemic issue in the garment industry, which relies so heavily on cheap, quickly produced goods that workers’ safety and rights remain of little concern.
Already the tragedy has been characterized as the worst garment-factory accident ever, with few industrial accidents of any type coming close to its death toll.
But finally this week, two of the Western companies that employed suppliers in that building have come forward to identify themselves and pledge their support to the victims’ families.
One of those is British retailer Primark, which is often branded as the JC Penney of the United Kingdom. In addition to providing emergency food aid to survivors, the company issued this public statement: “Primark will also pay compensation to the victims of this disaster who worked for its supplier,” the company said. “This will include the provision of long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to the families of the deceased.”
Loblaw, a Canadian firm that owns the Joe Fresh fashion label, also had at least one supplier in the Rana Plaza building and has pledged to financially compensate victims’ families and survivors, though exact figures haven’t been released.
In the meantime, the firm is urging other retailers to take similar responsibility. But so far, no one has.
Galen Weston, Loblaw’s executive chairman recently said during his company’s annual meeting, “As many as 30 international apparel brands were having goods manufactured in this building, yet only two have come forward and publicly commented.”
The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, was arrested shortly after the collapse, and in the days that followed, evidence emerged that he illegally built three extra stories on top of a building that should have maxed out at five. The day before the collapse, his structural engineer announced on television that Rana Plaza wasn’t safe. And yet, workers were ordered back in.
The New York Times reports that in the rubble, activists found labels and documents linking to other major brands like The Children’s Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions and Mango. Benetton and Mango have already denied having any current contracts with businesses inside Rana Plaza.
But for those who were active partners, getting them to speak up hasn’t been easy. And that’s not uncommon in garment-factory disasters.
Less than five months ago, in Tazreen, Bangladesh, 112 workers died, many of whom dove out of building windows to escape the flames of a massive fire that engulfed the building. Some companies paid compensation to survivors, but not Walmart or Sears, both of which contracted suppliers that used the Tazreen factory.
In fact, Walmart previously voted against requiring annual safety reports from its suppliers, citing that it could lead to higher costs for the company.
Nonetheless, activists believe that compensatory money—though absolutely necessary—on its own doesn’t solve the problem of workers rights and safety issues in countries like Bangladesh, where market pressures dictate the production of massive quantities of clothing under very tight deadlines. Those circumstances cause a proliferation of worker abuse, which can include violence, forced labor, nonpayment and other unsafe or unsanitary working conditions.
Bangladesh alone is responsible for manufacturing almost $16 billion worth of clothing every year, and most of it is then shipped to big-name apparel stores in Europe and the United States.
And yet there are no binding standards to ensure that throughout the supply chain, garment workers are kept safe, well-paid and fairly treated.
That’s why activists like Ruth Tanner of War on Want are demanding that the labels that did business with Rana Plaza not only pay full restitution but also sign the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Agreement.
It’s a multipronged project that aims to create a system of checks and balances preventing worker abuse and disasters. So far, not even Loblaw or Primark has agreed to sign it.
As for consumers, finding out if your own clothing was made in dangerous or exploitative conditions isn’t as easy as knowing which country manufactured it—not all garments that come out of developing countries are made in unfair conditions.
Because sweatshop-sourced goods are the fashion industry’s dirty secret—one that infiltrates every tier, including premium and luxury brands—figuring out which labels are safe isn’t simple. But there are steps you can take to help ensure you’re not paying into the problem:
- Look for the UNITE label. UNITE is an international workers’ union which promotes, among other social causes, ethically made clothing.
- Look for the Fair Trade Certified label. Fair Trade labels are required to maintain minimum workplace standards.
- GoodGuide.com provides rankings for a myriad of products and companies, assigning each a grade based upon their environmental, personal and social performances.
- Ten Thousand Villages is the largest Fair Trade supplier in North America. Shoppers can order online, or visit one of their retail locations to find sustainably made clothing, jewelry and home décor.
As long as the workers making our clothes are suffering under the weight of systemic abuse, what happened in Bangladesh is for all intents not a garment industry problem or a Third World problem, but everybody’s problem—including our own.
How do you ensure your own clothing doesn’t come from factories that exploit or abuse their workers? Let us know in the Comments.