Today I want to veer the discussion from who we’re wearing to where you’re wearing. Coincidentally, this finds us at the intersection of my two favorite topics: law and fashion.
Where you wear.
Many of you are probably familiar with, remember all too well, or are experiencing first hand the gradual recession of the industrial giant that once was New York’s Garment District. Globalization in ’90s promised all-too-beneficial economic clothing production advantages overseas that could almost triple economic efficiency as compared to the high regulation and salaries required in the U.S. market. For more articles on the Garment District situation see this 2009 New York Times article and the 2012 Crain’s article. Back to exportation, since the ’90s, countries have been engaging in a figurative “race to the bottom,” lower costs, faster production. First, clothes were made in Mexico, then China, Vietnam, and now, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is the cheapest place in the world to make clothes.
CNN puts the labor cost on a denim shirt at 22 cents. Macleans deconstructs that cost between the labor, agent, and factory overhead. The results are staggering. The world’s cheapest labor cost to produce a shirt is 12 cents.
How do they do it?
77% of Bangladesh’s exports is apparel. It makes up nearly 20 billion dollar industry. Many government positions are held by factory owners, whose incentives to keep work in country and in their factories means low, low prices for Bangladesh to compete. After all, other countries can compete offering a variety of stronger resources. Bangladesh can be a risky bet given its intransient government, high credit market, sporadic energy blackouts, and relatively unmodernized ports. While they have a booming industry, they have not modernized in a way to keep up with their industry. It doesn’t makes sense to think that the Bangledshi government alone is going to instate regulation either. After all, if they do regulate or raise prices, there is the ever present fear that work will shift elsewhere.
Along with H&M, Primark, Walmart, Sears, K-mart, J. C. Penney, and Disney own factories in Bangladesh.
Now before I make Bangladesh out to be a heartless den of industrial misery, I would like to note that it was nearly Bangladesh alone who sent troops to help Rwanda in the ’90s. Further, they rank surprisingly high on the World Happiness Index. While their overall score is 108 (there are 191 states give or take a few contestations, though only 156 are ranked in the WHI), their score is definitely up from 2005-2007 and their base happiness score is higher than the U.S– at least it was in 2013.
Aftermath of low standards.
Given the critical conditions of many of the poorly maintained factories, fires are common sight in the Bangladeshi garment industry. In November 2012, a fire killed at least 112 workers at one factory; however, until April of last year this had been a concern mostly relegated to human rights activists and regional advocates . But the collapse of Savar’s Rana Plaza was different. The collapse of eight-story factory shocked the world, killing 1130 workers, and leaving hundreds of others wounded. Remember the terrible Chicago triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911? The terrible fire that killed 146 people? Try multiplying that by 10…
Maybe because it is the worst factory accident in history, the world finally took notice. The catastrophic death tolls were caused by poor maintenance of factories by their owners with little oversight by Bangladeshi authorities. After the 2013 collapse, NGOs and governments placed significant pressure on the purchasers of clothing made in Bangladesh to take a greater role in promoting safety factories run by their contractors.
Making a Change.
The world demanded recourse, and in May 2013, corporation, NGOS, and unions came together to sign the Agreement on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Rather than depending the Bangladeshi government to regulate, it appealed directly to retailers to make sure adequate inspection regimes are instated within their factories. It also made concessions for the remediation of the families affected by the fire.
From my International Law supplement by Dunnoff, Ratner, and Wippman:
“As of the summer of 2013, 70 global retailers, including H&M, Marks and Spencer, C&A, and Target had signed the agreement. A group of U.S. retailers, including Walmart, Gap, Macy’s and J.C. Penny’s refused to sign, instead producing their own plan, the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative. Their plan has been signed by some 17 U.S. and Canadian companies. An NGO analysis of the two plans that criticizes the U.S. plan can be found here.”
What About Now?
So what about now? A year out they’ve caught the fleeing owner of the factory. It seems like corporations have at least given lip service to fixing things… But there are still problems getting corporations to pay up to Rana Plaza victims. And what can we do as fashion enthusiasts?
To begin, check out the Clean Clothes Campaign. Those first two links that come up on the page are working towards getting corporations to pay up to the victims. Right now, Primark is dwarfing, paying about $640 per family, plus nine months of salary to help families of the dead meet expenses. The Guradian reports that “the Canadian group Loblaw has paid three months of wages, officials said.” So far, U.S. contributors together haven’t even made $300/ family with their efforts combined. Companies contributing include Wal-mart (only 2.2 mil.), The Children’s Place, both of whom were connected to the Rana Plaza complex, and Asda and GAP.
United Colors of Benetton and Matala both were connected to the Rana Plaza and have yet to contribute.
If you don’t like this. DON’T BUY.
Another way to be aware is to take a look at the list of companies who signed the Safety Accords. I’ve included a screenshot of the American ones, but look at the list before you boycott. Other common brands like Adidas, Aldi, Esprit, Puma, and H&M are on there. Benetton has too, but I’m loathe to buy if they sign but don’t act. WE HAVE THE BUYING POWER. If you want you can be like my Grandmother and try to only buy American. You can ignore the whole issue in the blissful ignorance of retail therapy. Will Gap or Tommy Hilfiger know if you don’t buy them because they refuse to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord? No. but you will, and ultimately, you have to live with yourself and the effects you have on others.
NGOS(non-governmental organizations) of note:
— Clean Clothes Campaign
— Maquila Solidarity Network
— International Labor Rights Forum
— Workers Rights Consortium;
More Info on Current Efforts:
— Huffington Post
— The Nation
— The Guardian
The cover photo from this post can be found here.