Will the fashion industry ever learn?

Reflecting on Rana Plaza By Jacky Engel

On 24 April 2013, when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing over 1,000 garment workers and injuring countless others, the world rightly reeled in shock. This was the deadliest garment factory disaster in history – the deadliest accidental structural failure in our modern memory – and as the death toll kept rising during the weeks following the collapse, the fashion industry came under heavy scrutiny. When the global brands sourcing from the factory were identified, Western consumers took to the streets to protest outside various big name store fronts. For many, perhaps, it was the first time the link between the clothes on their backs and the suffering of countless workers in far flung places was so starkly revealed. We are all connected in this “global village”.

At the time I was living and working in Cambodia, developing a creative arts programme for women and children who had been trafficked and abused. Having recently finished a full time tailoring course at the London College of Fashion I had found myself unwilling to work in an industry I knew was littered with multiple ethical issues; so I had sought another route to put my skills to work.

The news of Rana Plaza hit differently in Cambodia – it wasn’t the shock of the consumer, but rather the reaction of a nation that also produces for the global fashion market. For garment workers, the fear that it could be them next; for factory owners the hope of a boost in orders as brands relocated their sourcing. Furthermore, Cambodian garment workers were in the middle of their own fight for better working conditions in 2013, with protests for wage increases ending when police shot into the crowd killing at least four.

I remember sitting at dawn on the outskirts of the city, watching the scores of women in their colourful clothes walking to the factories. I remember the anti-riot fencing blocking roads and the warning it was “inadvisable” for us ex-pats to travel in certain areas. I remember a friend who’d worked in the industry telling me about the unwanted sexual advances of a male manager. During this period I followed the news on garment workers in the Phnom Penh Times – one story that has always stuck with me was of a man who had gotten a job in a garment factory, but the conditions were so bad he had left to take another job slaughtering piglets for market. I remember thinking, ‘how bad does it have to be that you would rather get up at 2am to kill 400 baby pigs before dawn?’

It’s not surprising that I became involved in “fashion-activism” not long after my return to the UK, and now work on a project that aims to bring legislation to ensure living wages for garment workers in global supply chains. Alongside many other organisations active in this space, we are desperate for change, and between us there are many ideas on ways to improve the fashion system. From binding agreements to protecting collective bargaining, addressing brands’ purchasing practices, creating a fashion watchdog, and raising wages, there is no shortage of solutions on the table. But there is a shortage of will from those in power – from those whose profits, lifestyles and political positions depend on maintaining the status quo, or at least not endangering it too much.

Ten years on from Rana Plaza, it seems that very little about the fashion industry is truly different. Whilst efforts such as the Bangladesh Accord, the Rana Plaza Arrangement, and other initiatives, have no doubt brought some benefits, the core business model of mass production against tight deadlines to sell huge amounts of stock at cheap rates has, if anything, become worse. With brands such as Shein and Boohoo leading the way into the new “ultra-fast fashion”, the pressure on garment factories to make more-and-more under ever decreasing margins means that building safety and labour rights are inevitably squeezed.

In this business climate, more disasters are inevitable, a reality well documented in the historical record – Rana Plaza, whilst the deadliest industry incident, is in no way an isolated one. The Rana Plaza Never Again site and Clean Clothes Campaign’s 2021-23 review detail some of the incidents that came before, and have happened since, including the Spectrum Collapse in 2005 (64 dead), the Tazreen factory fire in 2012 (112 dead), the 2017 Multifabs explosion (13 dead), the 2021 flood of an illegal factory in Tangiers (24 dead), and the Obour factory fire in 2021 (24 dead). I could go on

Neither is this pattern just a recent problem that began with the fast fashion revolution of the 90s and the opening up of global markets. If we look back just over 100 years to New York, we can read of a city that reeled with similar shock when the Triangle Factory Fire resulted in the deaths of 146 garment workers.

A striking feature of these disasters is the gender disparity, and vulnerability of those who died. At the Triangle Factory Fire, 84% of the victims were women and girls, predominantly from migrant communities. Similarly for Rana Plaza the proportion of female dead is estimated at around 80%, and many had migrated to Dhaka from Bangladesh’s villages in search of work. The modern industry as a whole is known to rely primarily on women to sew our clothes: they are cheaper, have smaller hands for intricate work, and are easier to control with intimidation and violence.

Utilising women’s labour and putting profits before worker safety is not a new thing for the fashion industry, it is a habit. A habit that no Government around the world has yet managed to stop – and until they do my fear, and the fear of many others, is that the next Rana Plaza is never far away.

Jacky Engel is the Project Manager of The Circle’s living wage advocacy. Jacky has over 20 years of experience in the not-for-profit sector in research, policy and advocacy, international development, digital campaigns and project management. She is also a professional tailor, which further drives her conviction that the fashion industry can, and should, provide the women who make our clothes with dignified and life-enriching work and a living wage.

To find out more about the Living Wage Campaign click here.