By now, we’re sure you’ve heard about Rana Plaza, the eight-story building housing several Bangladesh garment factories that collapsed last April. The details that emerged shortly after the tragedy were harrowing: over three thousand people were in the building at the time of the collapse, over two thousand were injured by the collapse, and over one thousand lost their lives. Some of the factories in Rana Plaza manufactured clothing for brands including Primark, Wal-Mart, Joe Fresh, Mango and Benetton. While some may wonder if anything positive can be gleaned from the calamity, Vogue’s Dolly Jones sought to find out “How The World Has Changed Since Rana Plaza”.
Jones began her article by describing what remains at the site of the catastrophe: concrete rubble, plants that have found life in the debris, molding fabric, twisted medal, and a symbolic pair of jeans swinging from a broken rail. But more has been left behind than just the heap of materials that used to be countless factories. After Rana Plaza, the world could not escape what was going on in Bangladesh. “Subsequent headlines detailed untold horrors: illegally run, poorly-built factories, desperately bad pay, foul mistreatment of (mainly female, often underage) workers and a system of mind-numbingly slow bureaucracy which would prevent compensation getting to the survivors,” Jones writes. And shortly after the building collapsed, within days, really, rioters and protesters began demanding safer working conditions and compensation for survivors, among other things.
The article goes on to describe the difficult balance that must be made in order to improve conditions in Bangladesh while not creating so much red tape that companies take their business elsewhere, leaving workers in Bangladesh unemployed. And Jones points out that it was no secret that Rana Plaza was not in proper condition. In fact, some workers were evacuated from the building days before the collapse, but garment workers were threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t show up to work. So, faced with losing their income, many workers went to work in a structure that was known to be substandard. And many of those workers lost their lives as a result.
But it’s not all sorrow and adversity, though. Jones points out that celebrities, activists, and designers have taken notice of the horrible conditions in Bangladesh and are pleading with consumers to be more mindful when making a purchase. Emma Watson, for example, said, “I think it's important that I'm accountable for the choices I make and understand they have serious consequences." And Cate Blanchett likens garment manufacture to climate change, saying that “[l]ike climate change - we need to change the way we consume fashion. And if more individuals do then we make a change collectively."
Carry Somers, who is the founder of Pachacuti, a successful Fair Trade company, has joined with the likes of fashion activist Lucy Siegel and Livia Firth to launch a campaign to raise awareness about the consumer’s role in the fashion supply chain. With that in mind, Somers founded Fashion Revolution and has declared April 24th an annual Fashion Revolution Day. On that day, people all over are encouraged to wear an item of clothing inside out.
And designer Isabel Marant has found some good in the bad. “It's given workers the opportunity to protest and, maybe I'm an idealist, but I think if things go on like this, eventually everybody will be on the same level,” she says.
It’s not just prominent people speaking out, either. As Jones points out, a UK-run Bangladesh Accord and it's corresponding US-based Alliance call for proper inspection of factories, financial support for improvements, and compensation to workers while work is being done. The Bangladeshi government has also increased the minimum wage by 77 percent as well as changed the law to allow garment workers to form unions without permission from factory owners.
While working conditions for many in garment factories remains unimaginable, and change is slow, it does appear that there may be some cause for hope.