Munir uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

Fast, cheap and disposable: garment workers and the clothing they make

A year after Bangladeshi factory collapse, progress is mixed on reforming labor conditions in clothing industry

April 24, 2014 5:00AM ET

A year ago Thursday, the world was confronted with the most devastating industrial disaster it has ever seen. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 garment workers died, showed the lengths to which manufacturers will subvert zoning, labor and safety requirements to score contracts and keep inventories full of on-trend fashions at bargain-basement prices. The tragedy put a spotlight on the people who sit behind the sewing machines, and some consumers for the first time made the connection between a brand’s margin of profit and the compromises to the safety and well-being of factory workers that result from preserving it at all costs. In interviews conducted in the following weeks, consumers on a well-worn commercial strip in New York City spoke of their willingness to pay 5 to 20 percent more than the current sticker price on a pair of gym shorts to ensure safe working conditions.

Having worked for more than a decade on sustainability in the manufacturing sector, I hoped that such well-meaning sentiments would grow and that disposable, fast fashion would no longer be commonplace. I hoped that the efforts of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, both started in the wake of the collapse, would gain momentum and yield meaningful results. I hoped that the victims of the Rana Plaza factory tragedy or their survivors would be compensated for their losses.

A year later, progress is clearly varied. Some workers are still waiting to be compensated. In the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, several factories have been deemed structurally unsound and shut down; advocates deem this progress, while workers are distressed and unable to feed their families. Fast fashion, meanwhile, continues to thrive

Change from both ends

Rana Plaza’s collapse created a public mandate to improve the working conditions of the people who make products and to reform the problems within the ready-made garment industry supply chain. The tragedy also affected me both personally and professionally. I’ve spent considerable time observing antiquated processes and inefficient infrastructure in factories around the world — including garment factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia, where I took a sabbatical this past fall. Based on those observations, my team and I introduced global manufacturers to technological tools to help them gauge environmental impacts while experimenting with materials and product performance features that reduce energy, water and toxic chemical use. I don’t do this work simply to save the earth’s forests or streams. I’m committed to sustainability because I want to keep the people who produce, use and touch products away from harmful fumes and chemicals, and I want to ensure that more materials, energy and water will be available for future generations. In Bangladesh during my sabbatical, I helped to build mobile services that garment factory workers could use to gain access to information about their rights and well-being.

On the consumer side, there is growing desire for transparency from both apparel brands and end consumers. For example, Fashion Revolution Day organizers are urging consumers worldwide to wear their clothing inside out on April 24 to showcase where it was made and by whom. At a brand and retailer level, creative directors and sustainability practitioners want to tell the story of the products they sell, such as where the raw materials were sourced and processed.

The dual demand of consumers calling for transparency and producers embracing burgeoning standards and requirements increases the potential for ensuring garment workers’ overall safety.
A worker uses a dial linking machine on the production line of the Vintage Apparels garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last year.
Jeff Holt/Bloomberg/Getty Images

But before these stories can be told responsibly, there is a huge need to standardize the metrics upon which a particular product’s sustainability or ethical profile is judged. Efforts such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index focus on the challenging work of creating baseline metrics upon which manufacturing facilities and their products are judged: from the structural integrity of the building to fidelity in electrical wiring to the quality of the light a person uses to sew. Establishing such metrics is arguably the most complex and time-consuming aspect of the puzzle, as labor and management styles and standards are often hard to separate from cultural norms; an acceptable management practice in one country might be egregious in another. (For example, in Western countries, it is typical for factory workers to self-organize and try to bring ideas to management about a particular improvement they’d like to see implemented. In Bangladesh, strict hierarchies in management structures discourage this type of action.)

Technologists such as myself are especially excited about the space opening up between the consumer side’s call for transparency and the production side’s burgeoning standards and requirements. The dual demand increases the potential for ensuring garment workers’ overall safety. 

Better factories

One example of technology’s role in helping factories improve comes from Cambodia, another country challenged by problems with garment factory worker conditions. Late last year, thousands of garment factory workers protested for higher wages, resulting in injuries and several deaths. The Better Factories Cambodia Programme last month launched the first significant public disclosure website of its kind, where International Labour Organization audit results for Cambodian garment factories are displayed in a table next to the results of their peer competitors. The website allows brands and consumers to see how a factory performed in critical areas within an audit, from accurately documenting overtime to holding fire drills to eradicating child labor. The website organizes data to help achieve the transparency so many want to see; but perhaps more important, it also incentivizes factories to quickly make improvements. One-third of the 51 factories included in the database made improvements across the 21 audit categories. Those improvements, scaled up, lead to the betterment of thousands of garment factory workers’ daily conditions. The database is also a significant data set with which an inclusive product history can begin to be collected and shared.

Another of Better Factories Cambodia’s projects is a telephone-based program called Kamako Chhnoeum (“Outstanding Worker”). At no charge, a garment worker can dial into an interactive voice response system and hear prerecorded content about compensation and allowances, occupational safety and personal health. Once the worker selects a category, she will be led through a short quiz on each topic. At the end of the quiz, workers are asked to identify the factory they work in and to comment on their workplace. (Their identities are kept secret.) In this instance as well, technology serves a dual purpose. It educates garment factory workers about compensation or safety and gives them a safe outlet for expressing workplace concerns. It also collects data to help sustainability practitioners and labor advocates get a picture of garment worker perceptions in aggregate.

Efforts such as these will help workers gain more information about their rights and steps they can take to improve their occupational health — from using needle guards to sterilizing needles to limit the spread of disease. They also motivate factories to improve their operations. I am encouraged by how much the horror of last April 24 stayed in the news this past year. But the work will not be complete until we turn better conditions and agreed-upon standards and metrics into widespread realities. Only by doing so can we ethically and accurately tell the stories of the products we consume and improve the lives of the people who make them.

Sarah Krasley is the senior sustainable manufacturing program lead at Autodesk. She develops technology tools for engineers to create more sustainably designed products and factories. She also consults on sustainable labor projects in the ready-made garment industry.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Bangladesh, Cambodia
Fashion, Labor

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