Fashion Revolution hosts Fashion Question time: Rana Plaza
Is the Fashion industry a better place for women to work five years on?
On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed. 1,138 people died and another 2,500 were injured. Rana plaza housed five garment factories from big global brands including Primark, Mango, Monsoon and more. It is considered the deadliest structural failure accident in modern human history and yet workers were ignored when they warned the building’s owners of the cracks that appeared the day before.
This is when and why Fashion Revolution was born. Founders Carry Somers and Orsola De Castro set up the not-for-profit community for everyone involved in the fashion supply chain. They challenge how we as consumers can make a difference through our purchases and champion how the supply chain needs a radical change in transparency, creating a more sustainable and ethical industry.
Thus, on 23rd April Fashion Revolution hosted and Mary Creagh MP chaired the Fashion Question Time at Portcullis house, Houses of Parliament. Questions were asked by the audience delving into the panels’ opinions on exploitation, pay, sexual abuse and working conditions for women working in the garment industry today. The panel consisted of Lord Michael Bates, MP Rushanara Ali, Professor Sarah Ashwin, Catarina Midby and Gerry Baldwin. When addressing the audience Carry stated that “worker exploitation thrives in hidden places” and asked this to stay in the mind of the panel when answering all questions.
Lord Michael Bates spoke about how the Rana Plaza tragedy had a domino effect on International laws, how the deaths of every worker was a wake-up call within the industry and how it shouldn’t have to take an incident of this nature to make western suppliers look more deeply into the roots of their own supply chains. “Progress has been made in the safety for the workers and the structures of the building, factories are now being closed which are deemed unsafe and 77% of workers are now feeling safer within the work place once safety surveys have been taken”.
Rushanara added that this has put more pressure on the U.K government to help countries like Bangladesh with funding into structural engineers and programmes which will make the wider community aware of what is deemed unsafe. Gerry Boyle argued that “we still have a long way to go, it is a case of 2 steps forward, 1 step back” as these changes can only be seen in the top tiers of factories, it is the other factories which are still a worry. Global brands are feeling the pressure and have to act on how the factories in their supply chain are run, however it is the domestic factories which are slipping through the sieve as no-one is monitoring these, thus smaller factories still have had little to no change.
Catarina Midby, sustainable manager for H&M said that “global brands will all have diverse levels of standards and their own differentiating standards within diverse countries”. Therefore, what is deemed acceptable internationally is hard to judge. As the biggest clothes buyers in Bangladesh, H&M pride themselves on their sustainability programmes for workers; they have introduced initiatives which invest in training, workers dialogue and wage. They have found “giving workers a voice is the most beneficial way to monitor standards” and studies have found that workers happiness has increased dramatically by letting them build a community where they feel they can express any issues which occur. Professor Sarah Ashwin, agreed with the need for auditing each factory. Which then posed the question:
Who is in charge of regulation? Especially in a country like Bangladesh, that has very little standards?
Rushanara noted that the Bangladesh government are officially in charge, however “there are gaping holes”. How easy it to regulate thousands of factories in a country with 163 million people? Almost impossible, as numerous factories are concealed and some even run illegally. Too, in a country where there are huge conflicts of interest between government officials, investors and government officials who invest in the factories, “it is not uncommon for money and regulation to become underhand”.
When the question arose whether this model of regulation in Bangladesh could be adapted elsewhere, the panel seemed hesitant. Lessons have been learnt from the Rana Plaza tragedy and audit models similar that have worked in Bangladesh are now in place in Pakistan. However, they believe that it is an extremely slow process, where companies hide behind outdated laws and countries have different regulations, it is places like Myanmar that need to adapt to similar models. Although this is hard as they are new to the market of the garment industry and their human right laws are very different.
When an LCF representative asked the question:
“Some view the feminisation of the garment industry as a positive step towards women’s emancipation, however is this a reality when 83% of the women works in Bangladesh are sewing machine operators and 10% are helpers, both the lowest paid jobs in the industry?”
The panel discussed how they believed that indeed this is a step towards women’s emancipation. It has been proven that in Bangladesh when a women is working not only does it give the women more power within their communities and families as they are bringing in an income, but it too is proven that they are less likely to be victims of domestic abuse. Women use work as a stepping stone, they see the job as temporary and many use their earned money to save and set up their own small businesses, which they wouldn’t have been able to finance if they were not working. Rushanara added that the benefits of women working are too shown consistently in statistics, for example the average number of children per family has decreased from 5 to 2 as women can now afford to buy contraception.
The panel too noted that yes, the majority of women were in the lowest paid jobs, however this is inevitably better than having no job. It means that these women feel as though they have a place within society and as a result this has created a huge shift and change in attitudes originating in the deeply patriarchal society. The government now see women as a huge economic resource and now money and resources are being put into girls’ education as they are being seen as more equal than before.
Ultimately, when listening to the panel answering the question ‘Is the Fashion industry a better place for women to work five years on?’ We can conclude that in Bangladesh, yes, conditions are improving and the workplace for women has shown significant changes however it is a slow process and there is still a long way to go.