The fashion industry has its fair share of shameful secrets. This became painfully evident in 2013, when the dead bodies of more than a thousand garment workers were found among the debris of what was once an eight-story garment factory called Rana Plaza, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since then, the country’s garment industry has found itself under intense scrutiny. This has been amplified by the voices of activists and organizations such as Fashion Revolution, whose push for change seems to have genuinely paid off. There is still, as always, room for improvement, but the disaster ultimately became a catalyst for reform—something that was never a given.
However, while the world has been focussed first and foremost on Bangladesh, other garment manufacturing countries have escaped scrutiny. This is because Rana Plaza became the historic example. The tragedy galvanized the world because its story came complete with dramatic photographs of the destroyed building and of blood-soaked victims, salacious tales of political corruption and harrowing first-hand accounts of carnage, recounted by traumatized victims. It facilitated a conversation about sustainability channeled through and mediated by the sensationalist lens of the global media.
"Even in comparatively developed countries, the exploitation of garment workers still goes on."
Meanwhile, recent reports that Forever 21 manufacturers were working for sweatshop-like wages in Los Angeles went under-reported. Arguably it didn’t fit the usual narrative of worker exploitation, which is usually focused on less-developed countries. A long and detailed LA Times exposé highlighted various technicalities allegedly used by the company to avoid accountability, as well as its “social responsibility policy”, which applied internationally but not domestically. A further investigation by the US Department of Labor revealed frequent labour violations as well as the exploitation of migrant workers, many of whom were identified as “undocumented Latinos”, sewing for just a few dollars per hour.
Conditions appear no better in the UK. Journalist Tamsin Blanchard investigated a series of reports last year that factories in Leicester were cramped and highly unsafe, leaving those inside severely at risk should any kind of accident take place. Again, the exploitation of migrant workers sewing for criminally low wages were found to be sustaining these inhumane practices.
In late 2016, Syrian refugee children were found to be manufacturing clothes, allegedly for M&S and ASOS, and in 2017 two men were jailed for trafficking Polish laborers into Sports Direct’s warehouse.
These revelations should come as a shock, given the 2015 implementation of the Modern Slavery Act, which requires UK companies with an annual turnover of more than £36 million [$41.3 million USD] to file a statement detailing their supply chain and their plans to stamp out modern slavery. Reports have consistently shown that thousands of brands fall short in filing their statements, and campaigners have highlighted that the Act does not require any minimum level of detail.
A lack of transparency in the luxury sector has also been a regular revelation of Fashion Revolution’s annual Transparency Index. Although companies have made progress this year, there is still a reluctance to disclose factories and suppliers, likely for fear of competitors snatching them up. However, this reticence gains a new, possibly more sinister interpretation in the context of a recent New Yorker longread, which details the underpayment of Chinese immigrants whose handiwork is responsible for some of the world’s most expensive goods. Again, sweatshop-like conditions are reported, as well as details of a violent 2016 protest and a 2013 electrical fire which killed workers who were essentially living in the factories.
The fact remains that even in comparatively developed countries, the exploitation of garment workers still goes on. And, in parallel, the last few years have seen a series of new garment industry hubs crop up in southeast Asia. Cambodia has always been a fashion manufacturing hotspot —and has, in the last few years, seen violent protests break out. But now countries like Indonesia are developing a global presence, as is Myanmar (described, due to the influx of western business, as “the new Bangladesh".)
"Although women make up an overwhelming majority of the worldwide garment worker industry, they still occupy the lowest-paid rungs of the ladder and are rarely offered chance to progress."
Stories of mass faintings in Cambodian sweatshops have been reported, and in Myanmar especially, alleged rights violations need further inspection. Despite a rise in daily wages (which often fail to encompass overtime), reports of unsafe working conditions, unpaid hours and even child labor are still commonplace, whereas an unsettling recent high-profile murder has sparked fear in female garment factory workers.
Incidentally, these issues are too rarely reported from a feminist standpoint. Although women make up an overwhelming majority of the worldwide garment worker industry, they still occupy the lowest-paid rungs of the ladder and are rarely offered chance to progress. Countless studies reveal that their lives are made miserable by sexual harassment and a generally toxic workplace culture, whereas some Myanmar factories have even been accused of forcing female employees to take pregnancy tests; those who failed risked missing out on employment because factory owners reportedly don’t want to be burdened with the 98 days maternity leave workers are entitled to.
Transport of workers to and from factories is also rarely provided by employees, which leaves many feeling unsafe on their commute into big cities. The cost of living in these cities often means that workers are unable to live within them, thus forcing them to travel in from rural suburbs and risk facing harassment on the way. One worker recently interviewed by ABC reported being grabbed by a gang, but she claims to have not filed a police report due to fears of losing her job: “I just told other workers, and they told the supervisors and managers that we don’t want to work late as we feel unsafe. It’s always something we demand, but never get.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In Cambodia, factory owners are still disappearing without a trace, leaving their workers without pay. Indonesian textile workers are still fighting for severance pay. Reports show that migrant workers in India are still routinely provided accommodation from which they’re forbidden from leaving. Meanwhile, a burgeoning trade is bubbling up in Ethiopia, where industrial parks are increasingly cropping up. A Bloomberg report quotes one owner as saying there is no exploitation, yet worker accounts paint a different picture. It also notes that PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, refused press access to its factory but say their practices are reviewed by a third-party.
"Thousands of buildings have been inspected and many dangerous sites closed down in the years since Rana Plaza."
A huge amount of work remains to be done, but legislation in Bangladesh has improved factory safety and new training schemes have been introduced to equip workers with skills, as well as an increasingly fair wage. Thousands of buildings have been inspected and many dangerous sites closed down in the years since Rana Plaza. Recent reports show steady economic growth there, and praise the industry’s willingness to improve conditions -- though this is arguably driven more by financial gain than anything else.
Vietnam is similarly lauded for its garment industry. The right to freedom of association has been a challenge to achieve, with some predicting it could lead to strikes, but it is one of the few countries to pay garment workers a minimum wage, meaning that the women there live comparatively well. Economic growth has been recorded — to the extent that H&M recently opened its first branches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City — indicating that Western companies are increasingly happy to open branches in these countries as opposed to merely outsourcing labor. The clothing may remain unaffordable to the average Vietnamese citizen, but the mere presence of a global chain is a sign that the country is on the rise economically. There is work to be done in terms of unionization and there are reports of cramped conditions, but it seems that Vietnam has one of the most exemplary garment worker industries in Asia.
"These problems don’t only exist in less-developed countries; as the Forever 21 exposé has shown, they can also plague cities willing to demonize undocumented workers while simultaneously rinsing them dry. "
These case studies of less-exploitative industries reinforce the good that can comes as a result of critical analysis and properly resourced engagement. Some accounts are more critical than others, but the general consensus is that the global impact of Rana Plaza has genuinely led to change in Bangladesh—to tighter safety regulations, increased wages and even education schemes for workers. But Bangladesh is not the only major manufacturer in the global garment industry, and the same critical examinations that took place post-Rana Plaza must be replicated in neighboring countries. It’s not only a human rights issue, it’s a feminist issue, and one which desperately needs to be addressed.
Similar violations in comparatively progressive countries also indicate that the global narrative needs to shift. The Modern Slavery Act may have done a good job at exposing the exploitation of migrant workers and abysmal conditions in parts of the UK, but its lax guidelines have arguably fallen short in terms of stamping it out. These problems don’t only exist in less-developed countries; as the Forever 21 exposé has shown, they can also plague cities willing to demonize undocumented workers while simultaneously rinsing them dry. Such abuses can be prevented, but to do so requires ongoing engagement and a willingness to continue to interrogate the true impact of the fashion industry, even after the dust has settled in Dhaka.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.