Who’s Dying for Fast Fashion? Fighting for the Rights of Garment Workers Worldwide

By Bianca Alexander

If you frequent at stores like Forever 21 to get the latest “trendy” looks at a deep discount, you may want to reconsider. Consumers who purchase clothing from large retailers like Walmart, The Gap, and Forever 21 are driving increasing demand for cheap, disposable clothing. As a result, manufacturers look to countries like Bangladesh where wages and workplace standards for textile and garment production are ridiculously low, in most cases, far less than $1 an hour. Though this keeps the price of “fast fashion” widely affordable, the race to the bottom of a competitive global marketplace leads to inhumane safety standards and growing exploitation of millions of garment workers, like 20 year old Rana Plaza surivor Aklima Khanam.

1133 garment workers were killed and over 2500 injured when the Rana Plaza sweatshop factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed on April 24th, 2013. Living below poverty, Aklima has worked in factories like Rana Plaza since age of 14 to support her family, including paying for her siblings to go to school. Her average work shift runs from 8am to midnight, seven days a week. Two to three days a week, she works until 3am or all night to meet her factory’s mandatory production quotas, with no paid overtime. Absent organized labor union representation to speak on her behalf, Aklima has no say in her pay, her work environment or her schedule, so she gets no days off.

The day before the collapse, Aklima’s managers discovered a large crack in the ceiling of the Rana Plaza building. Though she was scared to show up the next day, her employers threatened to dock one month’s pay if she didn’t show up to work. When the walls finally caved in on her an hour after arriving the morning of April 24th, she was trapped under her sewing machine for 15 hours before being rescued. Aklima sustained injuries to the head, neck and legs, and can no longer work. Prior to the accident, she made just under $31 per month. To date, she has received no compensation from her employers for her injuries.

Survivors Protesting at Children's Place

Aklima Khanam, Rana Plaza survivor; Aleya Akter, Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation. Photo: ILRF.

Leading the Fight for Garment Workers.

Organizations like The International Labor Rights Forum are fighting hard to give workers like Aklima a voice. A global human rights organization based in Washington, D.C., the ILRF was founded in the mid-1980s out of a coalition that fought for the rights of workers in international trade. The ILRF’s work in this arena is all-encompassing, including working to hold global corporations accountable for labor rights violations in their supply chains, advancing policies and laws that protect workers and strengthen their ability to advocate for their rights, and educating consumers about how they can be a part of the solution. One year after the collapse on April 24th, the ILRF will celebrate the Pay Up Global Day of Action in honor of those who lost their lives in Rana Plaza.

To learn more, I sat down with Liana Foxvog, ILRF’s Director of Organizing and Communications. An avid sewer since the age of 10, she shares a deep connection with garment workers worldwide.

What led you to become an advocate for garment workers?

In 2002, I went on a student delegation to El Salvador and Guatemala where I met with garment workers who were blacklisted for trying to form unions at Gap supplier factories. I started making my own clothes when I was 10. When I learned about the poverty wages, the forced pregnancy testing, the forced overtime, I was shocked – this was so different from the creative work at a sewing machine that I loved.

Two years later I joined SweatFree Communities, a national organizer where I offered campaign trainings and organized national conferences to mobilize activism for sweatshop-free procurement policies in local communities around the United States. In 2010, we merged with the International Labor Rights Forum, where I lead our campaigns for garment workers’ rights.  

What is the ILRF’s currently doing on behalf of garment workers around the world, and specifically in Bangladesh?

In December of 2010 a fire at That’s It Sportswear, a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh which supplied a number of U.S. companies including Gap, PVH and JCPenney killed 29 workers who were trapped inside due to locked exits, the ILRF, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Maquila Solidarity Network, Worker Rights Consortium, and a group of global unions and Bangladeshi unions started negotiating with companies for a factory safety agreement with the aim of curbing the future death toll in the Bangladesh garment industry.

We were clear that the agreement had to be between companies and workers’ unions so that workers would have a truly meaningful role in both the governance of the safety program and in the implementation. We also knew the agreement had to be legally-binding, since it was clear from multinational corporations’ track record in Bangladesh that their voluntary, confidential “Corporate Social Responsibility” programs were ignoring the voices of workers and trade unions, including workers’ right to refuse dangerous work.

Due to company resistance – Walmart wasn’t willing to pay more for safety and Gap wasn’t willing to make a binding commitment to safety – PVH and Tchibo were the only two companies that had signed on by November 24, 2012, which is the date when 112 workers were killed in the Tazreen Fashions factory fire. At this factory five of 14 production lines were making Walmart clothing, and due to the tight order turnaround time imposed on them by brands, managers couldn’t “afford” to lose precious minutes or hours to what they say they thought at first was a drill. Some of the workers who were killed had tried to exit the building when the smoke alarm rang, but supervisors locked the collapsible gates and sent them back to their sewing machines, saying that it was but a fire drill. The news of the fire hit the headlines but the industry continued to resist change.

Only five months later major cracks appeared in the walls at Rana Plaza, a large building that housed five garment factories, but managers required workers to return to work the next day, threatening to dock their wages if they didn’t. The morning of April 24th, a loudspeaker announcement told workers that the building had been repaired, which was a blatant lie. Well over 3,000 garment workers were inside the building when it collapsed less than an hour later.

Rana Plaza Arial View

Rana Plaza aerial view.

Since the building collapse, ILRF has been working with United Students Against Sweatshops in the U.S., Clean Clothes Campaign in Europe, the Maquila Solidarity Network in Canada, and a number of other organizations to urge companies to sign onto the factory safety agreement – now called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh – and to pay their fair share of compensation to the injured workers and families who lost loved-ones.

Why is it Important companies manufacturing in Bangladesh sign the Bangladesh Accord?

Soon after the Rana Plaza collapse, H&M – the largest buyer of apparel from Bangladesh – became the third company to sign the Accord, and other brands rapidly followed, some voluntarily and others only after pressure from activists. The Accord now has over 150 company signatories. It’s an unprecedented, path-breaking agreement between global brands and unions with a binding commitment to fund factory renovations to make the buildings safe. The Accord has an immense amount of work ahead, with nearly 2,000 factories in its purview to inspect. The publicly-available reports of the first inspections show that even in one of the best factories in Bangladesh, there are major fire and electrical problems, pointing to the vast amount of repairs and renovations needed in the industry to make factories safe for workers.

Garment workers and unions in other countries are also keenly watching the Accord, as its success will give hope of being able to achieve meaningful agreements with companies on other critical issues such as living wages and freedom of association and could also provide a model to learn from for other sectors as well.

Mom Who Lost Her Daughter at Rana Plaza

Woman who lost her daughter in Rana Plaza, Dhaka Day of Action June 29, 2013.

According to the ILRF, what makes a manufacturing supply chain ethical? 

Workers themselves are the best people to determine whether their working conditions are fair and decent. Since unions are the collective voice of workers, it’s essential to involve them in any effort to empower and elevate workers’ voices. But all too often workers are silenced when they speak up for change. When union organizer Aminul Islam was disappeared, tortured and murdered or when four workers protesting for higher wages in Cambodia were killed, it sent quite the sobering message to other workers who may want to speak out and can have a chilling effect on organizing.

Very basic things that companies should do is to list online all the factories where their clothes are made, like Nike and H&M do, to pay fair prices to factories and require that the price translates into a living wage, to allow access to unions to provide trainings in freedom of association, and to require that international labor standards and local labor laws are upheld. Companies must also fulfill their commitments to labor standards throughout their supply chains, including textiles manufacturing and cotton plantations. In Uzbekistan, the world’s fifth largest cotton exporter, the state forces over a million children and adults to work, cultivating and harvesting cotton for the benefit of the authoritarian government. In India, the cotton industry relies on forced child labor and drives farmers into desperate indebtedness, resulting in a tragic spate of farmer suicides.

Self-proclaimed ethical companies should be held to the highest standards, yet some of these companies don’t disclose the names and addresses of their factories, don’t know where their cotton is from much less incentivize decent working conditions in its production. On top of that, many of these companies’ cut-and-sew workers don’t have representation – either through independent, democratic unions or worker-owned cooperatives.

Evaluating the ethics of a company must involve talking to workers themselves, in a confidential setting without management presence, to minimize fear of repercussion for sharing the truth.

Sadly we often hear of management hand-picking the workers who get to talk to auditors and coaching them in what to say, and the workers know that they’ll lose their jobs if they stray from company line. This is the norm in auditing, and what comes to mind for many worker organizations when they think of “Corporate Social Responsibility.”

Gap Jury Award for Irresponsibility

Bangladeshi labor rights activist Kalpona Apter and Liana Foxvog at the Public Eye Awards, where Gap received the Jury Award for Irresponsibility.

What impacted you the most personally about the Rana Plaza catastrophe?

At the time I was touring the United States with Sumi Abedin, a young garment worker who had survived the Tazreen Fashions factory fire just five months earlier. We watched the death toll climb in the news, from dozens to hundreds and then a week later to over a thousand. We were already doing five media interviews a day with Sumi, and the media attention increased exponentially from there. The morning of the collapse, we spoke at a demonstration in front of the Walmart store in Renton, Washington. We cried on the stage. The audience’s support was palpable – and what an incredible audience: firefighters, OUR Walmart members, and local activists.

The pain and trauma of Tazreen was immense, and Rana Plaza was ten-fold worse. Kalpona Akter, the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, was traveling with us and she already wasn’t getting sleep from the nightmares she endured from being jailed and in solitary confinement in August of 2010 in a government and industry attempt to stop her from organizing, and from witnessing the Tazreen fire. We were exhausted, saddened, and outraged. But we maintained hope and our commitment to the struggle for change only deepened.

What can we as consumers do to prevent another Rana Plaza from happening in Bangladesh or any other part of the world?

People can recognize and claim their power, as consumers, workers and citizens. There are so many things you can do, from supporting groups like ILRF to urging groups that you’re part of that buy clothes in bulk – student organizations, congregations, sports teams, business conferences – to shop with a conscience. You can have a bigger impact by getting your city, county or state to pass a procurement policy to ensure respect for workers’ rights in supply chains supported by your tax dollars and to join the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. You can sign up for ILRF’s alerts and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to hear about current campaigns and join actions.  

What do you hope to accomplish with the Global Day of Action, which coincides with Fashion Revolution Day on April 24th?

The goal of the “Pay Up” Global Day of Action is to secure full and fair compensation for the survivors of Rana Plaza and the families of the deceased. It will call on all brands that did business at Rana Plaza to pay their fair share into the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund. About half the Rana Plaza buyers have now contributed some compensation, but most of them still need to pay much more, as the Fund is two-thirds short of its $40 million goal. In the United States, demonstrations will take place at Children’s Place and Walmart stores. If there is a Children’s Place or Walmart in your community, I hope you’ll join in! Visit orphansplace.com and walmartdeathtraps.com for store delegation and demonstration materials as well as for sample tweets and Facebook action suggestions.

Bianca Alexander, Esq. is the co-founder and host of Conscious Living TV, and the Director of Communications for Fashion Revolution Day USA.  Join the movement!  Be curious. Find out. Take action. #insideout

Main Photo: Child of Rana Plaza victim. rainbowcollective.uk.co


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