7 Years After Rana Plaza: “High Time to Address Skewed Power Relations in Fashion” – Fashion

April 24, 2013 was a black day in fashion history: seven years ago, the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring many more. Sara Ceustermans of the Clean Clothes Campaign looks back and forward.

The Rana Plaza tragedy is certainly not the only disaster in the textile sector in recent years, but a disaster that has brought the problems in the clothing industry around the world on the map. It became very clear that fast fashion chains as well as more expensive fashion brands produce their clothes in developing countries under very gloomy conditions.

The Rana Plaza tragedy is certainly not the only disaster in the textile sector in recent years, but a disaster that has brought the problems in the clothing industry around the world on the map. It became very clear that fast fashion chains as well as more expensive fashion brands produce their clothes in developing countries under very gloomy conditions. Every year, the organization of the fashion revolution commemorates the collapse with various actions and social media campaigns. The goal? Together we build a transparent, fair and ecological fashion industry. We went to Sara Ceustermans of the Clean Clothes Campaign to see if progress had been made since then. Sara Ceustermans: It has improved a lot. Shortly after the Rana Plaza disaster, the agreement on fire and building safety in Bangladesh was drawn up, an initiative to improve safety in garment factories. Around 200 fashion brands and chains signed the agreement, which agreed that strict security checks would be organised in 1,600 Bengali factories. These inspections were followed by reports and renovations to increase safety. These renovations were really urgent and in some cases the renovations had a lot of feet in the ground, but we can say that the current situation is much safer than it was seven years ago. The positive thing about the agreement was that it was legally binding and companies that signed it could be sued if they did not comply with the agreements. This has happened in some cases. Unfortunately, it was decided last year to dissolve the agreement and take over from another body. The Government of Bangladesh has called for this. The Bangladesh Agreement was groundbreaking and has led to much progress. It is therefore a great pity that this is not the way forward. The past has shown that a non-binding approach does not work, because the garment workers are then at the mercy of the goodwill of the fashion companies. It is still unclear how this will work, and negotiations have been suspended because of the current crisis. It is very important that there is another agreement that makes the agreements enforceable and that fashion brands can be held accountable if they do not comply. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of progress in this area. Most garment workers earn the legal minimum wage and work overtime to earn extra money. The problem is that the minimum wage is structurally too low and therefore does not come close to a living wage. The gap between the minimum wage and the living wage is smaller in some manufacturing countries than in others. For example, the minimum wage in Cambodia and China has increased in recent years, but it does not mean that workers are now earning enough to live a dignified life. In Bangladesh, we are talking about a ratio of one-fifth: the legal minimum wage is not enough to make ends meet, to feed their families and to send the children to school. In 2018, the legal minimum wage in Bangladesh was raised from around 53 to 90 euros per month. That seems to be a nice increase, but it is not really like that. It is important to know that wages in Bangladesh are only reviewed every five years. This is far too little, because it is a country with high inflation. Life is getting more and more expensive, but wages are not rising. Protests were rightly heard. Unfortunately, many activists have been cracked down: some have been fired from their jobs or thrown in jail. In addition, the production targets for raising the minimum wage are also high. Textile workers in Bangladesh must produce 30% more than they do for the wage increase. So the workload is immense. We must always be critical when announcing a pay rise, because this can lead to workers having to work even harder when they are still not being paid a living wage. The clothing brands must bear their responsibilities. As long as they pay too little to suppliers, workers will not receive a decent wage. The price war always increases the pressure on workers. An important caveat is that the European producing countries do not automatically act ethically. In countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, the minimum wage is also far too low. Studies have shown that workers in Romania not only have to work in the domestic clothing factories, but also have to work a field so that they can sell vegetables as an added advantage. If they don’t, they don’t earn enough to make a living. It’s catastrophic. There are factories that report that up to fifty percent of their orders are canceled. This is contrary to the contract, but fashion brands can afford it because they are in control. If brands cancel orders or don’t pay, factory owners can do very little about it. They do not have the means to argue. The costs have already been incurred by the suppliers. The fabrics were bought, the workers went to work and the clothes were shipped. If the brands do not pay, the garment workers are not paid or even put on the streets. This is dramatic, because in low-wage countries, no income means no food. The balance of power is completely distorted, and this is becoming increasingly clear in crises. Just as you could see after the Rana Plaza disaster what was wrong with the fashion system, the Corona crisis also exposes the pain points. It is to be hoped that it will finally become clear that prices must be different and that fashion brands are partly responsible for the well-being of clothing workers. In good times, most of the profits go to the brands. Not to factory bosses and certainly not to the garment workers. In bad times, it’s just the people who take the hits. This shows the enormous vulnerability of the people at the beginning of the chain. We in the West can rely on systems such as technical unemployment and sick leave at this time of crisis. In the producing countries, they do not know this. When a fashion company chooses to produce in a country without social security and with extremely low wages, it is also their responsibility to protect these people. You can’t just reap the rewards and then walk away from your responsibilities. We therefore call for the contracts already awarded to be paid as soon as possible and for us to examine how an income for workers can be guaranteed as soon as possible and to examine how an income can be guaranteed for workers. If you don’t do that as a company, it’s like ordering food in a restaurant but refusing to pay when it’s in front of you. Fortunately, there are already many brands that have paid for their orders or promised to do so. You can see through the Worker Rights Consortium’s Brand Tracker which brands have made promises and who is silent. We are calling for an emergency fund to which brands can contribute. Some companies set up their own fund, but we are less of a fan of it. Unlike the official emergency fund, building your own pot is much less transparent or enforceable. We don’t know what they’re doing with that money or whether it’s going to be good in the end. Such a fund is particularly good advertising for a brand. In recent years, brands have become much more transparent about their supply chain. This is certainly a positive thing, but we must not forget that chain transparency is a means and not an objective. Just because you make the list of suppliers public, it’s not that everything is fine. Open communication through your suppliers gives organizations the ability to carry out independent controls. In any case, it is very important to know who makes our clothes. In the Clean Clothes campaign, we are also campaigning for transparency in the wages of garment workers. Brands often mention a policy in this environment, but have they actually achieved their goals? We would also like to see more reporting on what can be improved. This is also part of honest, transparent communication. Several EU Member States have taken steps in the right direction at national level. In the Netherlands, for example, there is a law against child labour, and France has a law on respect for environmental rights and human rights by companies with a liability mechanism. There are also some changeovers in countries such as Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Norway. Belgium lags somewhat behind in this area. It is very positive that several EU countries are taking action, as this European Union will ultimately be receptive to an overarching initiative. There are also fashion companies that themselves demand laws around chain responsibility. Finally, they see it as unfair competition and would prefer to create a level playing field with minimum rules for all companies. Unfortunately, the coronavirus spreads soot in the diet. After all, many countries will want to protect themselves and put in place support measures for local businesses. We hope that these measuresWill promise be made to stand up for human rights. The governments of Western fashion companies have the means to give grants to fashion companies, but the countries where the factories are located do not. So it could be that the balance of power grows even faster. Let us hope that this period will increase self-reflection and a fairer distribution of profits in this sector.