Exploitation is the foundation that our current fashion industry is built upon. Fast fashion brands are only able to make their massive profits due to the marginalization of mostly Black and Brown garment workers in developing countries. Of the 74 million textile workers worldwide, 80% are women of colour . These workers are paid less than a living wage, often illegally work 14 to 16 hours days and regularly face harassment and unsafe conditions .
This reality was thrust into the global spotlight on April 24th, 2013. Rana Plaza, a building complex with multiple clothing factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed with more than 3,000 people inside . 1,134 were killed and more than 2,500 were injured, a vast majority of which were women and children. The building had been marked with a warning that it was unsafe to enter the day before due to large structural cracks. Despite this, the garment workers were ordered to return to work and threatened with withheld pay if they did not. The factories inside Rana Plaza were supplying major fashion brands including The Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, Mango and Primark.
The Rana Plaza building after its collapse, credit: Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Fast fashion brands typically outsource their production to developing countries with minimal labour laws and worker’s safety protection. This allows them to keep their operating costs low, and to gain popularity and wealth for shockingly low costs in storefronts. A Human Rights Watch report found that factories in Pakistan employ children as young as 13 to avoid paying minimum wage and overtime . Pakistan saw a similar tragedy to Rana Plaza in 2012, when 225 garment factory workers died and 100 more were injured in a fire .
Aftermath of the Ali Enterprises garment factory fire in Pakistan, credit: Fareed Khan / AP
More recently, the economic impacts of COVID-19 have forced many clothing brands to cancel garment orders, leaving workers without an income . In Bangladesh alone, brands cancelled or put on hold over $3 billion worth of completed and in-process clothing orders . This includes Gap (Old Navy, Athleta, Banana Republic), Urban Outfitters (Anthropologie, Free People) and Levi's. Employees of these factories most often work without a contract and can be fired without warning. Workers in Karachi, Pakistan protested forced layoffs and months of unpaid salaries in May but were met with police violence .
An empty garment factory due to COVID-19 lockdowns in Ashulia, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on April 7, credi: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP via Getty Images
There is no simple solution to the crisis of exploitation in the fashion industry. The fashion industry needs an overhaul that values human rights and the environment through each step of the supply chain. The good news is that consumers have immense power to catalyze this transformation. Support Garment Workers is a site with an array of resources and opportunities for us to get involved in this transition towards a just system. They lead a campaign calling on brands to #PayUp for their cancelled orders. You can participate by signing petitions and contacting brands. The non-profit organization Fashion Revolution is another great resource that was established in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster.
Artisans at the sewing center in Nepal who make the clothes for Elegantees
Tradle partners with brands that believe in transparency of their manufacturing practices. Parade supports fair trade production in India and visits their production facilities twice a year. Haven Kids produces their garments locally in Vancouver. Greige provides extensive information on their family-owned partner factory including manufacturing processes and working conditions.
Worker at Greige’s production factory, credit: Greige
It is time to create a new normal for the fashion industry where ethical production is the standard rather than a bonus.