The Face behind the Label

A powerfulpiece by Solène Souplet-Wilson on the Bangladesh factory collapse...

The Face behind the Label

Our ignorance of multinational fashion companies supply chains has allowed us to live in utter bliss, whilst the workers who produce our clothes risk their lives making them.

The true cost to fashion was exemplified on the 24th April 2013, as the world watched the catastrophic collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The collapse has been described as history’s deadliest apparel disaster, with the official death toll reaching 1,132, and a further 1,650 workers admitted to hospital. According to a study made by the Clean Clothes Campaign, it will cost USD 71 million to provide full compensation to the affected families, excluding medical costs and rehabilitation for physically injured workers, or payment of wages and legal severance to those rendered unemployed.

It is important to note, however, that this is not a unique accident. Such tragedies are an endemic problem in the industry. For example, the first recorded garment factory fire occurred in Dhaka on December 27, 1990, at Saraka Garments, claiming 32 lives and over 100 workers left injured. Since then, 2,200 Bangladeshi garment workers have been killed and thousands more injured in at least 300 safety incidents. What is even more tragic is that 16 lives have been lost since April due to fires. 

Furthermore, factory fires and collapses are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems in fashion supply chains. The price of fashion has become extremely cheap, as multinational brands have ‘raced to the bottom’ in selling clothes at cheap prices, and of course paying garment workers even cheaper. Bangladesh’s garment workers are the lowest paid in the world. At the time of the Rana Plaza collapse the minimum wage was just BDT 3,000 (USD 38) per month; estimated to be only 12% of living wage. With the majority of the garment workforce being female, estimated at 70-80%, they often face sexual harassment at work, and receive a lack of social reproductive rights. Whilst it is extremely important to not homogenize the experience of the female worker, by portraying them as victims, we must take responsibility for the part we have played in the depersonalized nature of global supply chains.

Whereas in 1981 the British clothing and footwear retail market imported just 29% of all it sold, by 2001 the figure had soared to 90%. Currently the business is worth a staggering £44.6bn, which makes the UK high street the world leader in fashion. Brands such as Bon Marche, Mango, Matalan and Primark have acknowledged recent orders or trials in the Rana Plaza factory. Unfortunately, there have been no concrete commitments made to ensure compensation to affected families (with the exception of Primark providing short-term relief in the form of cash payments). What has been initiated, however, are schemes such as the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord, which is a legally binding accord that will run for five years, and includes over 100 apparel brands commitment to work together to ensure safety in almost half of the country’s garment factories.

With the run up to Christmas, it will be interesting to see whether such issues of greater transparency in the supply chains, or fairer pay for garment factory workers, will be at the forefront of discussion. Having previously worked for a leading British High Street brand, I distinctly remember the panic that surged onto people’s faces as they franticly searched for a last-minute present. Or even the herd-like gatherings of people running desperately into the store for the Boxing Day Sales. The Rana Plaza collapse meant that we were able to put a face to the people behind our clothes. It is important that we remember such tragedies, and pursue sustainable shopping practices, as its not only fashion brands that are guilty of such practices, but electronics, sportswear, toys and accessories too.