Exploited garment workers in Bangladesh are facing arrest and violent attacks for demanding more pay. A campaign uniting customers and workers gives you the power to help.
Why do we need a fashion revolution? Because six years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,138 garment workers, our clothes are still being made by some of the poorest, most overworked and undervalued people in the world.
A report published last week by the Worker Rights Consortium, gives a shocking picture of repression, violent attacks and intimidation of garment workers in Bangladesh who are simply trying to campaign for a living wage. Desperate workers – vital cogs in the country’s $30bn (£21bn) industry – have been asking for more money since the minimum wage was raised in November 2018 to the equivalent of $22 (£17) a week, less than 45 cents (35p) an hour.
Since last December, at least 65 workers have been arrested on false charges, while factories producing clothes for some of our favourite brands have fired and blacklisted 11,600 workers with no legal justification. According to the WRC, some have paid with their lives, shot dead by the police as retribution for speaking out.
“The industry and the government seem to be driven by a desire to maintain control and low prices, regardless of the risks to workers’ lives and well-being,” says the report. “They are clearly betting that western brands and retailers care a great deal about prices and very little about labour standards.”
I care, and I want the brands I spend my money with to care, too. That is why I will be taking part in Fashion Revolution week this week to ask: Who made my clothes?
“We are campaigning for an industry where environmental protection, as well as human rights, are the standard and not the exception,” says Carry Somers, who founded the campaign in the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse. She started Fashion Revolution because she, like co-founder Orsola de Castro and many others working in the industry, felt that the disaster had to stand for something. “It had to lead to revolutionary change within the fashion industry.”
“Fashion Revolution has been really successful in terms of giving people easy tools to be curious, find out, and to do something about it,” says Somers.
I will be doing just that. The textiles industry accounted for 1.2bn tonnes of CO2 in 2015. Its use of non-renewable resources - including oil to make synthetic fibres - is estimated to increase from 98m tonnes in 2015 to 300m tonnes by 2050. Dyeing and textile treatment processes contribute to 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution.
“When the system is killing us, we must change it,” said Sara Arnold, founder of fashion rental company Higher Studio, which is taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests. “The privilege and influence of the fashion industry should be used to force governments to declare emergency and act.”
Fashion Revolution week provides the perfect platform to urge brands to put worker welfare and safety and environmental safeguards above shareholder profit. “We have to start looking at the true cost of our clothing, because at the moment that is hidden,” says Somers. “Ultimately, future generations are going to bear the cost of the unseen social and environmental impacts.”
We all have the power to make a change. This Fashion Revolution week is all about demanding fair and decent conditions and pay, environmental protection and gender equality. On Wednesday, Fashion Question Time will be at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, with a panel of speakers including Mary Creagh MP, chaired by Baroness Lola Young. Limited tickets are still available here. There are thousands of other events around the world – to get involved, go to Fashion Revolution’s events page.
Our voices really do count. And it’s such a small action. All you need to do is join #WhoMadeMyclothes? You may be pleasantly surprised by the answer.
This article was amended on 22 April 2019. An earlier version stated that 1,338 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza collapse; 1,138 died. It also reported that 32.5 million people took part in Fashion Revolution week in 2018; 3.25 million participated.
By Tamsin Blanchard for The Guardian