Even if the fast fashion industry is getting better, it’s doing so ever so slowly.
The 24th of April marked the passing of three years since the Rana Plaza disaster, where a garments factory building collapsed, killing 1130 and injuring twice as many people producing clothes for the giants of the international fashion industry. This catastrophe was widely reported by the media, and the companies were pressured into taking measures to avoid this kind of thing in the future. Explanations were also needed: it was known the building was not stable, the workers reported cracks on walls and ceilings – this was all ignored.
Now, let’s move a little back in time, to grasp the scale of the tragedy: to Manhattan, a little bit over a hundred years ago. In 1911 a fire broke out in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 146 people. It was one of the biggest industrial disasters in the history of the United States. It resulted in the introduction of 60 new laws and regulations on worker safety in the New York state over the next two years, and its impact on workplace safety standards in the US was tremendous.
What does the situation look like in Bangladesh, three years after a disaster in which the number of fatalities was an order of magnitude higher than in Triangle Factory’s fire? Hardly optimistic.
This year’s Clean Clothes Campaign report (full version available for download here, summary here) states that compensation of medical care costs and payments for loss of income for the survivors and families of those killed was fully funded. However, things don’t look so good in terms of avoiding future incidents like this one.
Soon after the catastrophe the biggest brands, pressured by public opinion, joined an alliance called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, or Bangladesh Accord. Among the signatories were H&M and Inditex (and, after a few months’ delay, a Polish company, LPP – this reluctance to sign was reported in Polish media).
But there are problems with bringing the agreement to life. The standards it poses are met only by a handful of suppliers. Half of the factories working for H&M haven’t even introduced the basic fire safety measures. According to the CCC’s report out of over 1500 factories scheduled for repairs, only in seven of them all the hazards identified in the 2014 inspections were removed. Yes, you’re reading it correctly: seven.
And we’re not getting any closer to fixing this, once we notice that the primary tool used by fashion companies for assessing the conditions in the factories – supply chain audits – are most likely not doing the good job they are supposed to.
The suppliers are responsible for the necessary repairs and taking care of workplace safety. But the repairs cost money, and the factories operate on a very thin profit margin. Take for example a $14 t-shirt – the factory’s cut is a little over half a dollar. If 60% of the factory owners can’t even afford to pay the workers minimum wage, it’s hard to expect they’ll pay for the repairs themselves.
Here’s where Bangladesh Accord is supposed to come in and help. The fashion brands are supposed to negotiate the terms of at least partially financing the repairs. There may be some doubts, however, about how it’s working out: most of the factories are behind schedule, and three out of the five years the Accord is planned for have already passed. There’s not much time left.
Another Rana Plaza-type incident seems likely to happen. It was a very close call in February this year, when a fire broke out in a factory supplying, among others, H&M. Fortunately, this happened about an hour before most of the 6000 employees were scheduled to come in.
I’m not writing all this to make you feel guilty about shopping in H&M or other brightly lit stores with cheap clothes. I can’t really throw stones here, my wardrobe isn’t filled exclusively with clothes made by local artisans or small family businesses.
But the fact that something like Bangladesh Accord exists, that after stalling for quite some time, Benetton or LPP joined it, means that public pressure works – at least to some degree. And it works as long as situations like this are remembered, as long as we are not satisfied with empty words and gestures, but talk and write about them. As long as we, the consumers, still pay them some thought.