When Rana Plaza, a multistorey building housing garment factories, collapsed in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in April 2013 the focus of the world media was on the conditions of Bangladeshi workers.
It seemed that a turning point might be reached in their fight for rights. But a new investigation by ITV journalists, featuring the campaigning NGO Labour Behind the Label, has shown that little has changed for the better.
In this programme two young women workers wearing hidden cameras went to work in two fairly typical garment factories, making clothes for Western companies. The women filmed very young women and girls — some as young as 13 — working longer than the legal working day, with no days off, in hot conditions, being slapped, kicked and insulted by supervisors when they could not keep up with the workload.
In Bangladesh, under-18s should work no more than five hours a day, and 14 is the minimum age for legal work, but in the film all of the workers are forced to work for 11 hours. The worker’s basic pay is just £30 a month.
The investigation also found fire doors padlocked shut: hundreds of Bangladeshi workers have burned to death in factory fires. A fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in November 2012 killed at least 117 people. After Tazreen, health and safety regulations were tightened up, but the film showed that in this area too, so far, little has changed for the better.
There is some hope for improvement in the future: in the aftermath of Rana Plaza a number of brands signed up to a legally binding agreement called the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which gives a role to workers’ representatives and will set out a programme of inspecting and improving safety standards in more than 1,000 Bangladeshi factories.
Walmart and a number of other US brands have not joined it, however, and have put forward a weaker alternative scheme that does not include workers’ representatives.
The programme showed the factory managers coaching workers in what to say in anticipation of a visit by a potential Western buyer. Workers were told to say that they worked no more than the legal maximum number of hours, and that they had received the required health and safety training. They also have to lie about their age and to say that they are old enough to work long hours in the factory — when it is clear that they are not. But scrutiny of the industry is so rare that such coaching is scarcely ever necessary.
This film graphically illustrates that all of the codes of conduct in the world — and most clothes brands now have them — are worth nothing unless the workers on the ground are in a position to fight for their own welfare – unless they are organised!
The Rana Plaza collapse killed 1,130 people and injured thousands, most of them workers who had been forced back into the block to work on the upper floors despite the fact that there were severe worries about the building’s structural condition, and after shops and a bank on the ground floor had already closed.
Some of those companies whose labels were found in the dust — the 29 brands identified included Benetton, Bonmarché, Mango, Matalan, Primark and Walmart — were momentarily embarrassed by the unwelcome focus on the conditions under which many of our clothes and their profits are made. Although not all.
To date, the majority of those brands are still refusing to pay compensation to workers injured or to the families of those killed at Rana Plaza. Even those companies that will pay out — companies that have made billions of pounds from the sweated labour of the Bangladeshi garment workers — and the Bangladeshi government itself make people jump through hoops to get compensation: they must prove that their dead relatives worked at Rana Plaza and have even been required to provide DNA evidence that a certain body is that of their loved one.
This is both grotesque and totally impossible in the case of the around 300 bodies buried without identification.
The Government offers proven victims the equivalent of £13,000 compensation; the brands collectively are offering in addition at most a few hundred pounds per victim.
Companies such as Walmart still contest whether the clothes found at Rana Plaza with their labels on were actually being manufactured there at the time of the disaster. This evasive behaviour is typical of the big brands.
In the ITV programme, some of the jeans being made at the factory had Lee Cooper labels on them. When the programme makers presented Lee Cooper with the evidence, they claimed:
“We employ a strict set of rules to ensure our licensees source responsibly and can confirm that this production is either counterfeit or unauthorised.
"We will take all steps to eliminate the unlawful production of Lee Cooper branded products.”
Perhaps the jeans were pirates – but big brands are often quick to try and wash their hands of responsibility for conditions in their supply chain. A lot of sub-contracting of work does go on, but the brands know this happens and they are complicit in it: they are completely implicated in the crimes of the industry, from top to bottom.
And, again, so what if the jeans were pirates? It is unlikely that the factories making genuine Lee Cooper jeans will be much better than those exposed in the film.
The whole industry, worth £13 billion annually, and accounting for 80% of the exports of Bangladesh, is unsafe, unhealthy and grossly exploitative. It will remain that way until the workers in the industry themselves have more power.
Perhaps Lee Cooper is a little more ethical than the pirate manufacturers (it’s doubtful) but if we want to see the end of sweatshops we will not change much by swapping or boycotting certain brands.
Our concern should not be for brand reputation! It is for the workers in the industry, whoever they are producing for. All the companies, whether premium or shoddy, will get away with whatever they can get away with. The industry as a whole turns a blind eye to sub-contractors who will themselves sub-contract to less regulated factories when a big order comes in.
How we can help is by supporting the workers in the industry to organise to fight for better wages and working conditions. It will not be easy: unions such as the National Garment Workers Federation do important work, but, according to IndustriALL, a global union federation for textile and garment workers, less than one percent of garment workers in Bangladesh are represented by a union.
But workers can make gains. At the end of 2013 Bangladeshi workers won a 77% increase in the minimum wage (one of the lowest in the world) which will rise to 5,300 takas (£43) per month, after a 10-day wave of protests demanding an even higher increase (8,114 takas, a 170% increase).
It is this type of workers’ action that we must support if we want to help end sweatshops. Ultimately, workers should control the industry, take it out of the hands of the exploiting minority that own and run it at the moment. In the future, the factory and brand owners will have to do without their fat profits earned from the blood, sweat and tears of men, women — and children — slaving in deathtrap factories.
Many people think that Bangladeshi workers toil in terrible conditions because Western shoppers want cheap clothes. The arithmetic is false.
Research by the TUC published in May 2013, after Rana Plaza, showed that doubling the wages paid to Bangladeshi workers would result in the price of a t-shirt going up by just 2p. Commenting, the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:
“It isn't UK consumers — trying to make their wages stretch further as their living standards are hit — who are to blame for life and labour being cheap in Bangladesh. Wages paid out to the thousands of women who work in the clothing factories are just a tiny fraction of the end price we pay at the till. It’s the multinational companies — the brands, retailers and manufacturers who are all well-known names on our high streets — who bear the responsibility. They are the ones who must change their behaviour and encourage their overseas suppliers to pay higher wages and improve working conditions, not UK consumers.”
Rana Plaza victims and relatives have still not been compensated.