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What We Have and Haven't Learned from the Rana Plaza Factory Disaster

It's been one year since the Bangladeshi factory collapse which killed more than 1,130 garment workers. Can the odd pang of consumer guilt be reconciled with this unfathomable tragedy?

by Emilia Terzon
Apr 28 2014, 8:10pm


Photo via Taslima Akhter

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a bit guilty about the Rana Plaza factory collapse. I feel complicit when I buy something from a major clothing chain. I feel anxious when I start browsing Topshop’s addictive online store. I feel dirty when I find a rogue Made In Bangladesh label in my bulging wardrobe, because I know I've been a beneficiary of a global system that is unquestionably unfair.

This system was made clear one year ago last week, on April 24, when the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,130 workers—many of them young women sewing clothes for major fashion labels on a dollar a day. Rana Plaza’s legacy is the worst garment factory disaster in recorded history, made all the more tragic by the fact there are still bodies beneath the rubble waiting to be found. Today, there are 2,500 injured survivors, and 800 orphans who lost their parents in an avalanche of concrete, sewing machines, and cheap polyester clothing.

How do you even reconcile the odd pang of consumer guilt with this unfathomable level of tragedy? Many of the narratives around Rana Plaza try, subtly, to reconcile the consumer discomfort that's gripped rich westerners in the past year. Everyone from free-market economists to Vogue have said Bangladesh is just experiencing its “21st century equivalent” of New York’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. The implication is that this dirt-poor nation’s booming garment industry, while dodgy, is a sign of progress—as long as Rana Plaza leads to more worker protection, a rise in monthly wages to over $68, and safety accords (things which are still a work in progress).

This argument is also prominent in Bangladesh. After 2012's Tazreen Fashions fire, another horrific Bangladeshi factory disaster, Bangladeshi writer Zafar Sobhan wrote “The harsher and even more difficult truth is that these sweatshops are signs of a kind of advancement. In 2012, few Bangladeshi starve to death any more. This wasn’t the case a generation ago.” Others compare the nation’s woes with China, which has apparently evolved from 1990s Nike sweatshop conditions into an unlikely poster child for industrial capitalism.

Former Bangladeshi garment factory worker Sumi Abedin survived the Tazreen inferno by jumping out of the factory’s third story window. “Please, do not boycott Bangladeshi products,” she said at an Oxfam Australia event last week in Sydney. She reminded the audience that millions of Bangladeshi workers (most of them young women) depend on the nation’s garment industry to feed their families and children.

Sumi’s translator and Bangladeshi garment workers' rights activist Kalpona Akter also warned against a consumer boycott. “If you boycott, you’re just hurting the people who you’re trying to help,” said Kalpona. “What’s happening in Bangladeshi factories is happening in garment markets all over the world: in Southeast Asia, China, and even South America,” she said. This argument is supported by countless headlines. For example, Zara has been regularly accused of using sweatshop in the less likely market of Argentina.

What's confusing is we don’t really know where or in what conditions most of our clothes are made, especially because retailers and their sourcing agents hate talking about that sort of stuff. As a consumer, it’s really tempting to just mentally blacklist Bangladeshi producers—everybody from Just Jeans and Kmart to H&M and Adidas—in favor of some more cuddly retailer that sell quaint pastels, but it's likely they're still owned by a retail group that outsources to Asia.

Some sourcing agents do speak out. This week, I did an interview for FBi Radio with a former sourcing agent, Ceridwen Filer, who’s traveled across Southeast Asia for brands like Rivers, Target, Harris Scarfe, and Myer. She said she’s seen reassuring garment factories and a few terrible ones. One of her best memories is of a glass-blowing village in the mountains of the Czech Republic that was tasked with making Christmas decorations. Her lowest moment was visiting a clothes factory outside Ningbo in mainland China in 2011. “That was one of the saddest days of my buying life,” she said.

Ceridwen said the workers at that Ningbo factory wouldn’t even look her in the eye, which made her feel like they’d been instructed in advance to not interact with outsiders—never a good sign in the global sourcing business. She told me the main responsibility for ethical working conditions primarily lies with factory owners, as well as corrupt governments in sourcing countries, but that retailers also have a huge obligation to source ethically. “We need to make sure that we encourage people to treat other people well,” she said.

Many activist groups and international lobbyists, including Oxfam Australia, have been trying to change the hidden nature of globalized retail in the year since Rana Plaza. The International Labor Organization is also pushing an Accord for garment factory safety in Bangladesh, which a host of large retailers have now signed. This Accord is legally binding, which means if a retailer signs it and then uses a dodgy factory, they are liable. Keeping retailers liable will take a lot of implementation, which is why the effects of the Accord won’t be known for another 12 to 18 months.

But does signing a document really do anything? Some retailers think signing the Accord is a sign that a once unsavory supply chain is now clean. Lucy Siegle, a fashion activist and author of We Are What We Wear, was diplomatically stern when I told her about this attitude. “Signing the Accord is not a silver bullet. It’s not a cure-all. It’s a first step [and] well done for signing it, but forgive me if I’m not going to bake you a cake or give you a knighthood, because it is not enough,” she said.

So, what is enough?

The first answer is obvious, but it’s easier said than done: there needs to be an overhaul of developing nations’ factories (and probably some factories in ‘developed’ places, too). “We’ve found problems in every [Bangladeshi] factory we’ve inspected,” Brad Loewen, the Accord’s chief safety inspector, told the New York Times this week. “There are lockable gates at 90 percent of the factories, and occasionally they’re even locked when our engineers are there.” (FYI: the locks aren’t to keep people out.)

It's not easy to say who should be responsible for cleaning up factories, and finger-pointing has become a routine part of the garment sourcing debate. Lucy Siegle says retailers have become unwieldy and comfortable with "squeezing the system" of cheap and unregulated labor to their advantage, and they need to face sterner repercussions (both consumer and legal) for this behavior. Lots of people say factory owners and corrupt governments are worse types of boa constrictors, but acknowledge that developing countries need help with development problems. This is why the Accord is chaired by an independent global body.

The second answer depends on the consumer. Lucy Siegle says boycotting isn’t really the answer, but consumers should value what they’ve got—a thriving vintage scene and local designers—before flocking to the likes of H&M, Uniqlo, or Topshop. “It would be so sad if I came back in five or ten years, and all those things were gone and all that was left was fast fashion retailers,” she said. She also says it’s important to research brands and their garment sourcing before buying new things, and to wear and cherish your existing clothes rather than treat them “like a roll of toilet paper.”

And then there’s the third answer. This one is more abstract, because it comes back to globalized capitalism’s incredible ability to sniff out the next poor and hungry sucker. There’s a reason why nobody talks about what came after the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, because the US garment industry mostly disappeared by the 1990s as retailers found cheaper options.

I don’t think you can blame any single retailer for the market’s reliance on cheap offshore labor and resources, although it’s clear that some give less of a shit than others. At the end of the day, we like cheap stuff and companies like making money. This is something that has happened on a global scale for generations, all the way back to the late Victorian bike craze fueled by Congo slave labor. Helping distant garment workers requires acknowledging how this increasingly globalized system works: we have an excessive amount of incredibly cheap and frivolous things because some people have it much worse than us.

What do you even call a system that’s based on this principle? “It is time we called this what it is—slavery,” said Oxfam NSW State Committee member, Dianne Sackelariou. Dianne’s passionate outburst elicited spontaneous applause from everybody in the crowd. She's not alone in her views—even Pope Francis agrees there was an element of “slave labor” at play in the Rana Plaza collapse.

Sumi and other Bangladeshi workers have a right to be offended by this well-intentioned comment, and calling an entire workforce of people slaves when they might say they chose to work in the industry could be a bit patronizing. But it’s worth recognizing that choices in Bangladesh, or China, or many other countries, aren’t necessarily the same sorts of choices people in the Western world face. How much choice is there for people at the bottom in a system that sometimes feels so rigged by the top?

Some people say this is the way the world will always be. Others, such as French economist Thomas Piketty, say that global capitalism and its methods of production are in urgent need of reflection. If Rana Plaza should teach us anything—outside the fact that we need to urgently address workers' rights—it’s that there’s nothing wrong with feeling that odd pang of consumer guilt. We should feel guilty, because forgetting that emotion would be to concede something far worse: that it’s OK to live with a dangerously unequal system. 

Follow Emilia on Twitter: @EmiliaKate

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