Friday 24th April 2020 is the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 women and men, as well as injuring and forever changing the lives of thousands more.

When huge cracks suddenly appeared in the walls of the factory, the workers were initially evacuated but then ordered to get back to work. Minutes later, the building collapsed on them. This was no industrial ‘accident’ but what international trade unions like IndustriALL termed ‘industrial homicide’.

The huge numbers of people killed triggered unprecedented media attention and many outlets for the first time were acknowledging the labour of fashion’s garment workers, scrutinising the dangerous conditions in which so many work, and critically, unpicking the relationship between cheap clothes and cheap labour.

Rana Plaza saw fashion’s glamorous mask ripped off to reveal the routinely dangerous conditions in which so many of the industry’s workers toil – locked onto floors unable to access fire exits, denied access to toilets and regular breaks, using old dangerous electrical equipment, not being paid on time or at all, banned from joining trade unions – the list goes on.

The memorial at the site of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh. ©Leigh_McAlea

In truth, there had always been – and continues to be – loss of life and injury for garment workers. In the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh in 2012, where a deadly fire broke out killing at least 117 people; the collapse of a Cambodian shoe factory producing for major brands which killed 2 workers and injured dozens more in May 2013 just weeks after Rana Plaza; a recent fire at an Indian denim factory in February 2020 which killed 7 workers and where the only means of escape was a ladder.

Most recently, the prevalence of danger for garment workers in the workplace was revealed in a piece of research – ‘Fires in the Fashion Industry Supply Chain‘ – which reported that in March 2020 alone, there were 66 reported fires in 18 countries resulting in four deaths and 50 injuries (ranging from minor to serious).

The scorched exterior of the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh. ©Leigh_McAlea

This routine loss of life and injury, and the normalisation of life threatening work, exposes an industry riven with, and dependent on, massive inequality in order to make and sell clothes. In the context of the abundance of extremely cheap labour in the global fashion industry, it is clear how and why our clothes – from sequinned tops to winter coats – can be so incredibly cheap.

Brands could pay workers more. They could take responsibility for more than the most cursory oversight of factories. They could address child labour in their supply chains. But they don’t.

And they won’t until we help to turn could into must.

Rubia with a photograph of her sons who died when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in 2013. ©Leigh_McAlea

In 2019, after the Environmental Audit Committee’s two-year inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, the UK government rejected every single recommendation made to protect both the rights of garment workers, and our living planet.

Disappointing as this initial response has been, the inquiry revealed the urgent need for legislation – from mandatory protections for garment workers to environmental targets. The industry’s consistent and abject failure to regulate itself from within means it must be regulated from without.

Despite of our own government’s resistance, there is now a rising groundswell of support for legislation and currently, the European Commission is set to develop a ‘new comprehensive strategy for textiles’ in the coming months including proposing new legislation for a fairer and more sustainable textile industry.

For now, it is the turn of the global Covid-19 pandemic to rip off fashion’s glamorous mask exposing again the massive inequalities on which the fashion industry depends and nurtures. As gigantic global brands stop, pause and renege on orders, many garment workers are now destitute with no money or food. The fashion industry’s reliance on poverty wages and terrifying job insecurity to produce its clothes means that workers are unable to save money to provide themselves and their families with any sort of safety net.

Whether Rana Plaza or Covid-19, what really needs to be addressed, challenged and changed is the fashion industry’s dependence on cheap insecure labour, and its promulgation of what is termed the ‘inter-generational transmission of poverty’ from one generation to the next. For fashion to sell its clothes so cheaply, it needs its workers to be poor and blocked from the social mobility that comes from work which lifts people out of poverty, rather than consigning them to it.

All of us can work to change this by taking action, however small.

At TRAID, we help make change happen by funding global projects focussed on stopping exploitation in the supply chains making our clothes. This work is empowering garment workers to challenge the fashion industry to pay a living wage, to use sustainable fibres, to take more responsibility for their supply chains thanks to our incredible partners around the world.

Garment workers protest over pay in Cambodia. ©LabourbehindtheLabel

They are largely small, nimble organisations like READ, PAN UK, PAN Ethiopia, OBEPAB, Labour behind the Label, War on Want, GoodWeave, Traidcraft Exchange, Nagorik Uddyog, Childhope UK, Fairtrade Foundation and AMMA which are right this very minute protecting and improving the rights, health, environment and incomes of garment workers and cotton farmers, their communities and families.

They are making change happen. You can make change happen. We are not powerless.

With this in mind, we love what sustainability expert Dr. Erin Redman advocates about the importance of changing our social norms to challenge and reshape those things we think of as given or fixed – for example to challenge the fast fashion model by wearing second-hand.

We also point you to the author Tansy Hoskin’s Triangle of Change and wholeheartedly back her recommendation to seek out like-minded people and organisations to work collectively to influence, challenge and change the systems themselves.

Every single day, you can also make different choices about the clothes that you use, most especially buying less, wearing quality clothes that last and using more of what you already have. It’s also critical to empower ourselves with knowledge so we know why and how to live differently.

The fashion industry doesn’t want you to have knowledge about the conditions in which garment workers live and work. Yet, it is this knowledge that helps us to recognise and empathise, an act of solidarity which makes another’s struggles our own.

Things you can do

  • On Friday 24th April, to mark the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, tune in to Facebook at 12:30 to see the acclaimed documentary Udita by Rainbow Collective, and then take part in a live Q & A from 1:30pm with the makers of the film, Bangladeshi trade union leader Nazma Akter, author Tansy Hoskins and Chief Executive of TRAID Maria Chenoweth.
  • Support this urgent appeal. TRAID is helping our partner READ in this urgent appeal to provide food for destitute garment workers in Tamil Nadu, India. Donate here. Just £5 will support 1 family with food for 1 week.
  • Click on the links to the organisations above and find out more about their work. You can also find out more the projects TRAID supports here, and the issues we tackle here.