The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh was the deadliest industrial disaster in modern history, killing 1,129 workers and injuring over 2,500 more. However, clothing manufacturing has been an exploitative industry long before 2013, all over the world. The global “race to the bottom”—in search of an ever-cheaper labor force—coupled with consumer demand for cheap and fast fashion, leaves garment workers paying the price. In some areas, it even leads to child labor, either because child work is less expensive, or because children may be forced to work in order to pay off a family debt. The US department of labor has found bonded child labor in Argentina and India and forced child labor in Thailand and Vietnam, where children may have been trafficked from Burma or Laos, or Vietnamese rural areas.
Garment workers face long hours; low pay; restricted freedom of movement (some may be locked in their factories day and night, posing a grave safety risk); exposure to toxic dyes or other chemicals; physical or sexual abuse; and inadequate food, water, and rest. In India, the Sumangali scheme, forbidden but still used, allows for adolescent girls to be sent to work in spinning mills or garment factories for three to five years to earn a dowry. During their contract, the girls live on factory compounds, work exhausting hours, and have little contact with the outside world. Many tire out before they ever earn the bonuses promised to them.
Additionally, Rana Plaza was not the only factory with structural safety issues. There have been deadly fires, explosions, and building collapses in garment factories around the world.
Luckily, there are many alternatives to sweatshop garments. Union-made is a great option. Fair trade companies, either certified by Fair Trade USA or members of the Fair Trade Federation, make products under healthy, just, and safe working conditions. Additionally, you can by locally produced clothing, second-hand, or even make your own.
Business in the National Green Pages® have been screened for their commitment to environmental and social responsibility.
Clothing brands have begun to improve building safety in Bangladesh—nearly 200 have signed on to the legally binding Accord for Building and Fire Safety. However, some companies—namely Gap, Walmart, The Children᾿s Place—still refuse to sign on, so we᾿ve launched a petition to pressure these brands into doing so. Read more about our activism for garment workers in Bangladesh here (link to GAM Shareholder piece).
Additionally, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights leads a number of campaigns to support garment workers around the world.