A large white van parked in front of Lincoln Center, in uptown Manhattan, on Thursday evening. Its roof opened up, and a portable projection device popped out, taking aim at the sprawling, block-long complex that was hosting one of the most prestigious events in the world of high-end retail. Images captured in the aftermath of a disaster began flashing on Lincoln Center's white walls: dead bodies covered by blankets and lined up in a row, the pain-distorted face of a woman carried on a stretcher, a man letting out an anguished scream.
Inside, New York Fashion Week was underway. Tall, skinny people strutted back and forth to the cicada-like snap of cameras flashing. Outside, beneath the images of despair, a group of labor activists were also marching back and forth, chanting and beating drums.
Photojournalist Ismail Ferdous had arranged the spectacle. The photographs were his, taken in the wake of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013, when more than 1,100 people perished.
“I want New Yorkers to think about who is making the clothes they wear,” Ismail told me. “Where I come from, garment workers are earning just $68 a month and giving their lives to sew these clothes.”
“What is the cost of fashion?” read Ismail's final projection, just before police had a chat with the crew in the van and the vehicle sped off. It was a question that wasn't paritcularly targeted at the small designers and fashion houses that have their wares made by artisans and use fashion as a form of protest and expression—it was directed at fast-fashion and big-box retailers that try to cash in on the cache of fashoin week and look to the event to discern future trends. Worker-rights advocates want to set a trend of their own, however.
“Mainstream companies pay attention to what happens at fashion week and then knock off the designs,” said Eric Dirnbach, with the Laborers' International Union. “This protest is really about how the whole fashion industry operates. It goes by a sweat-shop model.”
Bangladesh is the world's second largest clothing producer. Garments encompass 80 percent of the country's exports, mainly from contractors supplying to Western markets. Unions are legal on paper, but when it comes to actually forming one, activists often face repression from their bosses and the state. Working conditions can be deadly.
At least 117 employees were burned alive or jumped to their deaths at the Tazreen fashion factory, near Dhaka, when a fire broke out on November 24, 2012. The incident put a global spotlight on conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, but such events are common in a country where building-code enforcement is lackadaisical at best and where, just five months later, the floors gave way at Rana Plaza.
According to the most widely reported account, 1,135 people were killed in the collapse. But nearly 200 bodies have yet to be found. This means these families have not received the $1,559 in compensation allotted to victims' survivors by Bangladeshi authorities. Nor were they given the monthly stipend, equivalent to the wages the dead would have earned, provided until last month by the Irish brand Primark. The clothing outlet is just one of 23 retailers whose apparel was under production at Rana when the structure gave way.
In October, Primark and eight other firms tied to the factory disaster agreed to work with the global union IndustriALL to establish a $74.6 million trust for families of the dead and the nearly 2,500 injured. Details are still being hashed out, and it remains unclear if the funds will go to the relations of those who have not yet been added to the official roster of Rana's crushed and suffocated.
Brands notably absent from the deal struck with IndustriALL include large US chains such as Walmart, the world's largest retailer, and the Children's Place. In fact, immediately following the disaster, the Children's Place released a statement distancing itself from the tragedy, saying that its clothing was not under production at Rana. Nevertheless, as the New York Times was quick to point out, customs documents showed the Children's Place had received a two-ton shipment from a contractor operating at Rana just three weeks prior to the collapse.
After picketing in front of Lincoln Center, activists headed uptown to pay the Children's Place a visit at an Upper West Side location. A bewildered manager in the mostly empty store greeted the activists as they paraded in, drums pounding, and handed him a letter calling on the retailer to pay restitution for victims of the factory collapse
Beyond compensation, labor rights groups want the Children's Place and other multimillion-dollar clothiers to agree to new building and fire-safety standards they say will prevent future catastrophes. Puma, Adidas, Esprit, H&M, and Target are among the outlets who have agreed to the accord. But there are still plenty of large firms, like Walmart and the Children's Place, that have balked at signing.
Until they do so, “Americans should buy responsibly,” said Ismail. “You might be getting a deal when you buy a T-shirt for $10 or $12 dollars, but ultimately it means the person who made it is suffering.”
In a survey released by the British polling group YouGov ahead of London Fashion Week last fall, three in four respondents said they would pay more for clothing produced “ethically.” But household wealth is falling in the US, with median incomes down 8.3 percent since the recession, according to census figures—accounting for, at least in part, the popularity of those $10 T-shirts.
If any retailer can afford to be ethical it's Walmart. Doug McMillon, president and CEO of the $17 billion company, is expected to make $30 million in salary, bonuses, and stock options over the next three years. During that time, a garment worker paid the minimum wage in Bangladesh will have taken home $2,448—provided, of course, he remains alive.
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