Working conditions in the garment industry: let's continue to discuss it

Working conditions in the garment industry: let's continue to discuss it

The Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013 constituted a sort of watershed in the discussion about working conditions in the fashion industry. As more than 1.100 people lost their lives and almost 3.000 remained critically injured in the collapse, the world has been invested with increased awareness about the horrid setting garment workers are forced to work in. Yet, since the tragedy, not so much has beed done to reverse the status quo.

Following the catastrophe, an unprecedented global attention was placed on the fashion industry, which felt the pressure of showing commitment to better the general working conditions of garment workers. As a result, global brands and retailers, as well as a number of unions, signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a five-year binding agreement to ensure a safer working environment in the textile industry in Bangladesh. Over 220 companies were signatories to the Accord - including H&M, Mango, Benetton and ASOS - and, in 2018, more than 190 brands and retailers signed the renewed agreement.


Illustration: Giada Maestra

Illustrated by Giada Maestra


The 2018 Agreement, which replaced the older one and is currently in force, provides that skilled personnel shall regularly carry out safety inspections in all factories working for the signatory companies, and that a Chief Safety Inspector shall prepare Written Inspection Reports of all factories visited to which, if needed, the factories shall respond with a remediation plan. Corrective actions may include closing the factory for safety reasons or for renovations, for a period no longer than six months, while ensuring regular income for the employees.

The situation has slightly improved since the conclusion of such agreement, but there are still some significant limits.

First of all, the accord only applies to factories operating in Bangladesh. Even though a large share of garment workers reside in Bangladesh (where ready-made garments represent over 80% of total exports), the fashion industry employs 1 in 6 of the world’s workers, the vast majority of them representing low-cost labour in developing countries. Secondly, the government of Bangladesh is continuing its violation of human rights, by preventing the enjoyment of the freedom of association through the repression of wage protests. And most importantly, brands that pledged to conduct sweeping reforms - even signatories to the Accord - continue in their efforts to bring down the costs of production. In other words, the conditions that led to the disaster are all still in place.

When looking at how little has changed so far, one cannot help but wonder how many others will give their lives for the enjoyment of low-cost in the Western world. While a large part of responsibility falls on the policies perpetrated by global fashion brands and the governments failing to protect workers in their own territory, the western world obsession for low-cost clothing is equally to blame.

The fashion industry will not support desperately needed reforms until it is compelled to do so by a general recognition that low-cost necessarily implies depriving garment workers of a living wage and exposing them to extremely dangerous working conditions. Lifting the constant pressure exerted by consumers on suppliers to lower prices is crucial, and that comes only with the realisation that paying the right price means that decent working conditions are met and human rights are respected. As for now, this picture published by the Clean Clothes Campaign shows the average garment worker’s payment off the retail price of a t-shirt, which can’t provide a decent standard of living.

If we are not willing to change our shopping habits, at least we should be aware of the actual implications of buying non-sustainable clothing. Clothing companies, despite their apparent commitment to improve labour practices, are still substantially failing to pay their supply chains enough so that they can ensure workers a living wage. Garment workers are also silenced by their governments by being deprived of exercising the freedom of association and, therefore, prevented to protest the unmet promises of the garment industry. In addition, in the workplace, women, who represent the vast majority of garment workers, often suffer from infections due to the lack of hygienic controls or bathroom breaks, and, most importantly, are constantly exposed to sexual harassment and mistreatment by men. In this case, reporting sexual abuse is not an option because it would translate into losing the only source of income.

What I want to stress in conclusion is the importance of feeling a form of responsibility as consumers. However, this does not automatically mean we should boycott the global clothing brands altogether, which is not such an easy road to take. Rather, developing awareness about the implications of paying low-cost items for women in developing countries, and being willing to turn to more transparent brands to ensure that the rights of garment workers are respected, might represent a more viable solution. Clothing brands don’t have to be necessarily exploitative, and a radical change in their labour policies might only come as a response to us holding them accountable. In the long run, this could also be an opportunity for the empowerment of women working in the industry.

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