As the years go on, my biggest fear is that the memory of those we lost will fade into normality, as we succumb to a capitalist-compelled acceptance that Black and Brown bodies are a necessary sacrifice to ensure the functioning of society.
My biggest fear is that an event that destroyed the lives of thousands will become the next depoliticised marketing opportunity, as we emblazen our social media feeds with quotes on empowerment and recycled designer socks, stripping the disaster of its political roots, while dehumanizing the mothers, fathers, daughters, sons we lost that day down to a shout out of your favourite ethical brands, and dismissing the crimes of the murderous, capitalist regime that is the fashion industry.
Through this piece I want to remind you of the sheer devastation that took place and the humans behind the massacre, as I address whether anything has changed and why, and what we can do to show solidarity with workers on the ground.
All pictures were taken during the collapse and the aftermath by photographer Rahul Talukder.
note: I don’t agree with fur being used in fashion (this will make sense eventually)
The anti-sweatshop movement refers to a movement in the 1990s, exposing labour rights violations in the clothing and footwear industry via transnational networks. This movement amassed the support of various demographics and organisations, including religious groups, students, human rights organisations, and activist networks. While previous movements defending labour rights were focused on the actions of governments, this movement primarily targeted clothing companies with public exposure campaigns (Bartley & Child, 2014). By associating the actions of brands to working conditions within their supply chain, this “created a new discourse of corporate accountability” (Quan, 2008), emphasising the complicity of Northern brands in the exploitation of workers, including Nike, Wal-Mart and Gap (Bartley & Child, 2011).
Bangladesh has experienced rapid urban transformation, with Dhaka having emerged as one of the fastest growing mega-cities in the world, and other cities and towns in Bangladesh growing at a similar pace (Hossain, 2016). Urbanisation is now considered an “engine of growth and development” for developing countries, with studies demonstrating the influential relationship between urbanisation and subsequent development, including “socio-cultural and political development of the country”. Such development via urbanisation occurs with industrialisation at the core (Ahmed & Ahmed, n.d.). One major industrial activity that has come out of urbanisation and industrialisation in Bangladesh is the ready-made garments (RMG) industry, which has continued to expand. Indeed, recent studies show that the RMG industry currently consists of roughly 4500 garment industries in the country, contributing 76.3% of Bangladesh’s exports in goods and services, and representing 13.6% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP; Anner, 2018).
On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1100 garment workers, and injuring around 2500. This shocked the world, as the public demanded a change to the working conditions that created this disaster. Indeed, attempts had previously been made to create an agreement to ensure effective health and safety standards, however it was this horrifying event, and increased consumer pressure, that sped up the process, resulting in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2013).
Actually let me begin with this disclaimer: ANY CRITICISM I MAY MAKE ABOUT CERTAIN SITUATIONS/ORGANISATIONS/GROUPS OF PEOPLE IS NOT AN ATTACK ON THESE PEOPLE AS INDIVIDUALS BUT THE SYSTEM FROM WHICH THEY HAVE DERIVED FROM.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of an incident that left the world horrified, as we witnessed the deplorable consequences of corporate greed and capitalism.
On 24th April 2013, 8am, 3639 workers refused to enter the eight-storey Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, due to visible cracks in the wall that evidently posed a threat to the workers’ lives. In response, the owner Sohel Rana, brought paid gang members to beat the workers, forcing them to work, with threats that they would not be paid that month. They reluctantly went in.
At 8:45am, the 8 storey building collapsed.
1,137 have been confirmed dead, with over 200 remaining missing. Tales of workers trapped in the rubble with no choice but to saw their own limbs off to escape, of workers trapped within the collapse for days without food or water, surrounded by dead bodies. Of the families who had to identify their deceased family members, only to find that the bodies had been so deformed by the collapse they were almost unrecognisable. The suffering of the injured workers who are no longer physically capable of working, plummeting them into further poverty. The orphans who lost either one or both parents. The workers who survived, but must face on going psychological torment, as they return to work in the garment factories.
What makes things worse is the amount of pressure required to force retailers whose clothes had been found in the factory to compensate the victims and the families of the victims. Indeed, while some did pay up, others, notably Benetton, required intense pressure from campaigners before they gave in. Why they felt they were in no position to support these families is beyond me.
For the past four years since the accident, activists around the world have marked this day as Fashion Revolution Day, and the week it takes place in as Fashion Revolution Week. During this time, people all around the world ask big businesses who made their clothes, highlighting consumer concern for the workers behind their clothes and the need to hold corporations accountable for their workers’ wellbeing.
Demand for the fashion industry to check themselves has increased, and it is refreshing to see fast fashion corporations becoming more transparent, as well as some improvements being shown.
What I cannot deal with however, is the recurring news stories on factory fires from Vietnam to India, garment workers fainting en masse in Cambodia due to lack of nutrition, exhaustion and sweltering heat, young Dalit girls in Tamil Nadu being sexually exploited and abused through the Sumangali System (an agreement that women work in return for dowry required for marriage), women having abortions or working up til pregnancy to avoid being fired, impoverished communities being struck with high levels of cancer and disease due to corporations polluting their land with toxic materials or compelling workers to use hazardous materials, the cotton farmers committing suicide because they cannot keep up with the impossible debt they are put in.
The worst part? We are all unwillingly complicit in this cycle of exploitation, through a system called ‘fast fashion.’
Fast fashion simply refers to when retailers pick up trends from the catwalk, and push them out at large quantities to consumers as cheaply as possible. However, with trends now rapidly changing faster than ever, due to factors such as instant coverage of increasingly frequent fashion shows and online accessibility to new styles, retailers must keep up in order to meet consumer desires. For example, in Zara, designs will stay on sale for a maximum of four weeks. If Zara launch a particular product that doesn’t sell within a week, it is withdrawn, orders are cancelled and new designs are formulated, further highlighting their dedication to consumer demands.
As fast fashion retailers continue to push out new collections in large quantities and short spaces of time, this creates impossible targets for garment workers to reach in terms of clothes required to be made. This is why retailers aim to set up factories in developing countries, where the impoverished are in desperate need of work, where wages can be kept low, and where laws supporting the rights of garment workers are weak. This allows corporations to exploit workers more easily, with workers being faced with long hours, limited breaks, poor working conditions, poor pay, as well as physical, verbal, and sexual abuse.
As someone who has always loved designing clothes, combining materials, mixing my cultures via fabric, using my wardrobe to express political views- I feel evermore compelled to fight this battle. I love clothes, but fashion is absolute bull. As my fave Tansy Hoskins explained in an article, fashion today is a facade of ‘choice and empowerment’, a beacon of creativity, but intentionally refuses to acknowledge that it is held up by and dependent on the exploitation of the impoverished.
This is evident in the glorifying of fashion on social media. Particularly, it is the rise of the fashion blogger that has made me increasingly alarmed with this lack of accountability the fashion industry gets away with. Every time I see an Insta post with a caption saying something like ‘OMG I’M ADDICTED TO SHOES’ ‘SOMEONE TELL ME HOW TO STOP BUYING CLOTHES’ ‘I CAN’T STOP BUYING CLOTHES’ ‘RETAIL THERAPY’, and all these clothing hauls, it makes me sad that corporations have really worked their magic on us. Through persuading us that the only way we can be deemed as successful, the only way we can be happy, is by purchasing clothes that only provide a short term happiness which eventually fades until we get our next fix of ‘retail therapy’, they are truly feeding on our insecurities and the susceptibility of our subconscious to external messages. I can honestly say, most of this realisation has come from analysing myself and my responses to the world, and trust me it is a constant struggle battling between the messages we receive from society and my own consciousness.
At the end of the day, as much as society compels us to think fashion, style etc is the epitome of social success and happiness, we need to remind ourselves that this mindset is intentional, is a tactical form of marketing, and most importantly, A LIE.
The fact is, no one should have to suffer for me to be able to express myself, to be unique, to be creative, to be able to have a cute insta aesthetic and get bare likes for an ootd. As obvious as it sounds, this is the world we are in.
While I am still unsure as to how exactly we transform the fashion industry (I think about this everyday ngl lol), there is something I am sure of: You need to make your voice heard. Retailers depend on consumers to thrive, so increasing the pressure on these corporations to ensure the wellbeing of their workers is essential. Even simply @ing or emailing retailers like h&m, inquiring about workers rights has a powerful impact, especially if done collectively. In addition, I strongly believe in the impact our own actions can have on changing the world and changing our own behaviours. By reducing the amount of unnecessary clothes we buy, mending or recycling the clothes we have, opting for secondhand garmz or even Fairtrade stuff if u got p, we can encompass a sense of consciousness for humanity with every action we take, allowing our lives to symbolise the world we want to see, and help to actually be the change we want to see. There are also many organisations out here working actively to support garment workers around the world, such as Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label- check them out. I hope, both individually and collectively, we will all take a stand against this consumerist, materialistic society fuelled by capitalism.
Anyway I’m out. I truly hope we can create a world where the greed and ego of the people at the top is overridden by the masses and our desire to care for and protect our brothers and sisters around the world.
p.s. check out some of the events happening for Fashion Revolution Week this week here