In April this year the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,132 garment workers and injuring more than 2,500. This tragedy shone a much needed light on the shocking realities of fast-fashion and the murky supply chain of multi-billion pound brands. However, as the shock and publicity dies down, the under-paid and badly treated workers go back to their jobs behind closed doors and the world's media moves on.
It is evident that while an economic crisis continues we will not change consumer behaviour and there will still be a demand for cheap clothing no matter what the human cost may be. Pressure needs to be placed on the brands that build their empires upon sub-standard working conditions for the people that make their products, whether knowingly or otherwise.
The Bangladeshi government has recently approved a labour law that will improve worker rights. This includes the freedom to form trade unions, which was not previously in place. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but the test will be whether this has any real impact on workers rights and conditions, or if it is just lip-service following the international outcry. After all there is plenty of risk for Bangladesh, the garment industry is its largest employer and is estimated to be worth $21 billion.
The truth is Bangladesh remains the source of the cheapest labour for the global garment industry. As costs have increased in China, global fashion brands have switched production to cheaper factories in Bangladesh, resulting in the garment industry producing 10% of the country's GDP. This industry is therefore vital to the country's economy and provides much needed jobs. But companies need to make real sustained investments so that Bangladesh can flourish long-term.
Women make up 80 percent of the workers in the Bangladeshi garment industry. These women often come from rural areas and are forced to work extremely long hours for less than $40 a month. These women are generally given the very monotonous jobs, such as a machine operator or a finishing helper and are often subjected to sexual harassment.
The Bangladesh disaster illustrated that global companies do not put enough emphasis on knowing where their goods are coming from and are simply interested in the return the cheap products will give them and how they will contribute to their bottom line. While there is no accountability and limited pressure on companies to improve policies, what real change can be made to improve these workers' lives? Often companies do have regulations in place, but the people they think are doing the work in approved conditions are in fact outsourcing it to other factories, highlighting that the supply chain is extremely complex and non-transparent.
Companies need to make a real commitment to the communities where their products are coming from. They are taking advantage of these people, without making any kind of long-term investment in them. Many of these workers are working not only in unsafe buildings, but also working with unsafe chemicals and machinery. There are few health and safety precautions, and there is limited access to proper hospitals to deal with factory injuries and general healthcare for the workers.
What I want to ask big brands is would you expect your store employees in the western world to work 12 or more hours in unsafe environments? Is it ok because the customer will not see the poor conditions and the shocking realities of fast fashion are hidden? Bangladesh is thousands of miles away from the high street and not legally under the corporation's care, therefore they have very little interest in the garment workers wellbeing.
In this day and age when global organisations spend millions of pounds on employee engagement programmes, how can this simple duty of care be so over looked, especially when simple investments in such countries as Bangladesh are a fraction of the price of what it would cost in the UK. I call on fashion brands relying on cheap Bangladeshi labour to re-think their CSR policies and make some real investments in these people. Build schools, hospitals and sponsor management training programmes to help communities build better futures.