The disaster in Rana Plaza on 24 April 2013, where at least 1,138 Bangladeshi garment workers died, has spurred more people to fight for better conditions for the world’s 75 million garment workers.
On the one-year anniversary, fashion industry figures organised the first annual and international “Fashion Revolution Day” (FRD). UK events included a debate in the House of Lords; “fash mob” in Carnaby Street by London College of Fashion students; and Twitter Q&A with experts, including the IndustriALL Global Union General Secretary talking about a new trade union organising drive in Bangladesh: “The stronger the union, the safer the factory!”
FRD encouraged people to tweet a photograph of themselves wearing their clothes inside-out to their garment’s manufacturer and ask them: “Who made my clothes?”
For the FRD organisers, wearing clothes inside-out — showing the stitching and the label — helped people to think about what goes on behind the scenes of the fashion industry:
“We need to... reconnect the broken links in the supply chain. At the moment of purchase, most of us are unaware of the processes and impacts involved in the creation of a garment. We need to reconnect through a positive narrative, to understand that we aren’t just purchasing a garment or accessory, but a whole chain of value and relationships.
“...It takes a lot to make a garment. Not just the bits we hear about — the designers, the brands, the shops, the catwalk shows and the parties — but also the farmers who grow cotton, the ginners, spinners, weavers, dyers, sewers and other factory workers without whom the industry would not exist. These people, the people who make our clothes, are hidden from us, often at their own expense.
“The greatest cost these hidden people have to bear is to lose their life — as happened... in the Rana Plaza tragedy.... This terrible accident is a symptom of the broken links across the fashion industry.”
FRD was a valuable effort to foster consumers’ solidarity with garment workers, and prompt them to take further action, putting pressure on clothes manufacturers to treat workers better. After that, however, the plan became unrealistic.
With a focus in 2014 on “transparency”, FRD set an ambitious aim:
“...building a future where an accident like [Rana Plaza] never happens again.
“... Transparency means companies know who makes their clothes — at least where they are stitched as a first port of call — and then communicate this to their customers, shareholders and staff.”
Perhaps because they are working in the industry — albeit in its “ethical fashion” niche — FRD give garment manufacturers far too much credit for being moral.
“...We recognize that being transparent is difficult. As a business, you might fear transparency because you don’t want it to jeopardize your competitiveness, or because you might not be able to answer workers or suppliers if questions are asked, or because it might uncover issues you don’t know how to resolve.”
The fact is that companies know full well that their huge profits come from low wages, and turn a blind eye to practices in the factories they sub-contract to.
FRD are correct, however, that consumer pressure has been important in, for example, helping to achieve the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which makes independent safety inspections of 2,000 factories compulsory. More than 150 UK and 14 US brands have signed the Accord, which — on paper, at least — covers two million of Bangladesh’s estimated four million garment workers.
But it takes an awful lot of consumer pressure to make the brands move. Crucially, most important in forcing change was the action taken by Bangladeshi garment workers themselves, when they mounted a wave of protests and strikes in the wake of Rana Plaza.
In the FRD set-up there is little recognition of the importance of workers organising. The IndustriALL Twitter Q&A seems to have been exceptional on the day.
There were other anniversary protests. The Clean Clothes Campaign supports “the empowerment of workers in the global garment and sportswear industries”. Its UK affiliate, Labour Behind the Label, organised a “Pay Up” protest on Oxford Street, where Amirul Haque Amin, president of Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers’ Federation, spoke.
If FRD brings more people into contact with organisations such as Labour Behind the Label, or helps them to understand the importance of workers organising, it will have been worthwhile.
Students from the University of the Arts London/London College of Fashion joined in the FRD protests, led by members of the “Evolving Fashion” society.
“Evolving Fashion is a society that has been established for students across UAL to come together to discuss how we, as the next generation, can change the fashion industry. Our motto is Sustainability, Ethics, Innovation.
As well as campaigning for Fashion Revolution Day, we’ ve got some events coming up in May with some very exciting speakers — Watch this space!”
On 23 April the news that Primark is entering the US market, opening a store in Boston, made a far bigger splash than news of Fashion Revolution Day the next day. The Guardian reported:
“The Primark label was among 28 western brands found in the rubble.... Primark has paid more than any other retailer into a UN-backed compensation scheme, but on the first anniversary of the disaster this week the fund has raised only $15m (£9m), well short of its $40m target.
“Anna McMullen of Labour Behind the Label campaign said Primark had been engaged in the compensation process, but needed to rethink its business model. ‘ They are driving a fast fashion agenda that has a negative effect on workers’ rights around the world...’ “