In the week that honours the victims of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, it seems fitting to revisit the plight of Bangladeshi clothes factory workers. Four years after serious safety breaches brought unnecessary large-scale tragedy to a community of garment workers, how do today’s fast fashion manufacturers treat their employees?
Worker Treatment in Bangladesh Today
Rana Plaza of course isn’t the only factory incident to cause fatalities. Nor was it the only example of labour welfare risk in the developing world. When the spotlight shone on Bangladesh after the tragedy, horrendous stories of modern slavery conditions emerged; workers literally trapped in rooms forced to work for less than living wage.
Refinery 29, as part of its own Sustainable Fashion Week, writes that not enough has changed since 2013: “Despite garnering international attention and momentary outrage, four years on, not enough has changed in the substandard working conditions for garment workers around the world, nor has our insatiable appetite for fast fashion abated.”
Soaring labour costs and China's gradual shift from low-end to high-end manufacturing have seen garment production find a new home in Bangladesh, known as “the world’s workshop.
Are we any closer to a living wage?
In Bangladesh - the second largest exporter of clothes in the world - the minimum wage for garment workers is £45 per month (equivalent), nowhere near the £75 needed to cover a worker’s basic needs, let alone a living wage.
This is backed up by a recent survey of Bangladeshi factories supplying Marks & Spencer. They found that workers' average basic monthly pay was 6,500 taka whereas the estimated wage required for workers to live on and support their families is 15,000 taka per month.
Post Magazine say that the industry boom in Bangladesh “has the potential to lift the nation out of poverty in the same way manufacturing transformed the lives of tens of millions of migrant workers in China in the 1980s and 90s. But the relentless demand for ever-cheaper clothes from high-street stores and supermarket chains in the West is keeping workers' wages low.”
Child exploitation in Dhaka continues
A separate but no less urgent issue is that of child labour in Dhaka garment factories. Numerous exposés, including the Huffington Post, have discovered children as young as eleven working full-time in factories, with stories of psychological and physical abuse, for barely a dollar per day.
Another story tells of a young girl who left school to support her four brothers, sewing shirts and trousers for high street brands from 8am to 7pm. Under Bangladeshi law, those aged 14 to 18 can work for a maximum of five hours a day. Now 17, Bilkis earns £55 per month and says the factory owners would hide her when the inspectors came.
What has changed for the better?
H&M is one of a number of brands leading the way in promoting sustainable fashion with a sustainable business model and fair pricing for consumers. They have devised and implemented an operations-wide strategy to work towards a future where all of its clothing, not just its front-facing Conscious range, meets minimum standards of worker treatment. The strategy covers everything from waste management to how the brand ensures a living wage (currently for workers in 140 supplier factories in 8 different countries).
In last week’s Sedex Conference, the role of technology in lifting the worker voice was high on the agenda. Brands are harnessing assessment tools and data insight software to better understand the people risks within their supply chains. This week’s Transparency Index by Fashion Revolution highlighted several brands making big strides towards ethical business models.
According to these trusted sources and our own experience working with brands, there is positive change happening in fashion production welfare.
But we mustn’t forget ourselves as consumers and the role we play. While protecting supply chain workers from exploitation may mean people have to pay more for the end products, the labour costs represent such a small proportion of a garment’s cost that it will likely only add a small percentage to final price. Are we vocalising loud enough that we are prepared to do that?