When the eight-storey Rana Plaza commercial building, which housed several garment factories, collapsed in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013, a shock wave was sent around the world.
Many well-known brands in Europe and elsewhere had been producing clothes in the building and had [knowingly or unknowingly] accepted that the safety of garment workers was at risk – not to mention other working conditions.
The accident ten years ago killed more than 1,100 people and injured 2,500 more, making it one of the deadliest industrial disasters in Bangladesh’s history. But has the European garment industry changed since this deadly disaster?
One response was the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between brands, trade unions and NGOs that was reached just a couple of weeks after the disaster. The accord is a “robust initiative” and “unique in its approach and cooperation”, says Peter McAllister of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which advocates for ethical business practices and improved conditions for workers.
The agreement includes provisions for independent safety inspections, training programmes and a complaints procedure for workers. Major European brands, including H&M, Primark, C&A, Zara and Marks & Spencer, have signed it.
But while the Accord has raised awareness around the safety of garment workers in Bangladesh, the industry continues to fall short on other matters, such as paying people enough to reach the living wage threshold.
“Brands know they have to take responsibility for everything they do,” says Tamsin Blanchard of the Fashion Revolution movement, which has seen a shift in thinking around transparency in the industry since the Rana Plaza tragedy.
What can European consumers do?
However, the fashion industry is still “largely unregulated”. Companies moving production to countries where labour is cheap and environmental or worker protection laws are virtually non-existent still remain widespread.
And while European brands have introduced a set of labour regulations for social protection, countries outside the EU do not benefit from these guidelines.
Fashion Revolution recommends asking brands publicly about their products on social media. With the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes, more and more clothing brands are responding to these kinds of questions, says Tamsin Blanchard.
“It is important that consumers speak up”, be it on social media or on the website of their favourite brand. “Consumers should let brands know that this matters to them”
“Brands are listening”, confirms McAllister. “And when their customers say clearly, ‘We expect you to meet our standards. We expect to be able to shop without worrying about whether people are safe or decently paid or harassed in the workplace.”
The European Union is planning guidelines to hold brands accountable with the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive.
“We need legislation because that’s the only way we can really track what brands are doing,” says Aruna Kashyap of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
To find out which brands have signed up to the Accord, consumers can check the list on the Clean Clothes Network site.
The cheaper the clothes, the worse the working conditions?
Of course, you always have to be careful when things are cheap, says McAllister. “But it is not always said that a low price goes hand in hand with poor standards”. Sometimes cheap production can be explained by the volume of the order. In the case of cheap production, on the other hand, the question of sustainability arises.”
This is because the production of clothes, especially on the scale of fast fashion, contributes significantly to climate change. Manufacturing processes in the fashion industry produce large quantities of CO2 and consume extremely large amounts of water. Added to this is the shipping of the clothes, which further contributes to environmental pollution through emissions.
“When companies consider where they will produce in the future, how they will produce, and what materials they will use, they also need to understand the impact on human rights, on factories and on communities,” McAllister says.
But while many of the industry’s problems today are of their own making, people are also trying new and creative ways to make fashion more sustainable. As well as second-hand estates, there are companies that rent out clothes, swap them or, for example, upcycle old clothes in workshops.
How to ensure that garment workers receive fair wages?
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the minimum wage for entry-level garment workers in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza disaster has risen from around $63 [€57] to $95 [€87] in 2019. This was the result of pressure from labour rights groups and the workers themselves. However, this wage increase is still below the estimated living wage in Bangladesh, which is about $190 [€173] per month.
And the pandemic has further exacerbated the situation for Bangladeshi garment workers. Rising inflation is also becoming a problem, as workers can no longer afford the cost of living with the salaries they are paid in the fashion industry, says Kashyap.
Numerous organisations working for sustainable and fair production in the fashion industry, including Fashion Revolution and HRW, are calling for living wages across the garment, textile and footwear industries through the Good Clothes Fair Pay campaign.
This is a European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI), which requires the European Commission to decide on follow-up action if one million signatures are collected.