The social cost of ‘affordable’ clothes

Workers' rightsWhen I heard about the Rana Plaza factory fire in April 2013, I immediately checked the labels on some recent purchases and found, sure enough, ‘Made in Bangladesh’. But what could I do?

At the very least, I decided to inform myself about garment workers’ rights and conditions as the news is full of reports about underage, bonded and underpaid workers enduring unsafe workplaces and long hours, including for some well known brands.

I found that poor working conditions are not limited to Bangladesh or to the clothing industry. And this fire was not an isolated event.

Hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers have died in fires over the past decade, including a similar factory fire only a few months before. More than 260 people were killed in two factory fires in Pakistan in 2012. Factory fires are also common in India – but fortunately none have been on the scale of the Rana Plaza fire.*

Nor are the problems restricted to the factories where fabric is cut and sewn into garments. Workers involved in producing raw materials (e.g. cotton growing) and textiles (e.g. leather tanning) also face serious health, social (and environmental) risks.

This is not a new phenomenon. In the ‘dark satanic mills’, factories and mines of the Industrial Revolution, child labour and serious accidents were common and machine safety guards and personal protective equipment were rare. Even when laws were enacted, they were hard to enforce and inspectors could be bribed.

‘While some made fortunes from the cotton factories, those who worked in them had no union protection against excessive work, dangerous conditions and low pay.’**

And then I remembered learning about the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire during a Tenement Tour in New York’s Lower East Side:

‘…one of the pivotal events in US history and a turning point in labor’s struggle to achieve fair wages, dignity at work and safe working conditions. Outrage at the deaths of 146 mostly young, female immigrants inspired the union movement and helped to institute worker protections and fire safety laws.’***

After the Triangle Factory Fire, many important safety reforms were introduced despite the protests of clothing, bakery, cannery and other factory owners.

However, the lyrics and images in the music video commemorating its 2011 centenary remind us that basic workplace rights still need to be defended and fought for.

For example, an ethical fashion report published by Baptist World Aid and Not For Sale Australia (August 2013) found that Australian retailers cannot guarantee acceptable ethical and social standards across their products’ lifecycle:

‘More than 90% of Australian fashion retailers assessed did not know where their cotton is sourced from (in a sector where child labour is rife) and less than 40% of the 41 companies knew all, or almost all, of the suppliers involved at the factory level.’

Early last century, employees, manufacturers, retailers and consumers generally lived in the same country. Whereas today’s global apparel industry involves manufacturers providing cheap clothes to retailers on the other side of the world – who then add shipping, advertising, duties and other overheads and profit margins.

Hopefully not-for-profit organisations and social networks can make it easier for consumers to find and share information about companies’ practices and put pressure on governments to improve regulation and retailers to manage governance issues throughout their supply chains – regardless of the distance and complexity.

As the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Song says: ‘Don’t let the lesson be forgotten’.


* ‘Bangladesh Building Collapse Worst Garment Factory Disaster Ever…’. Palash Ghosh. IB Times (Published 3 May 2013) 

** (Accessed 31 Oct 2013)

*** (Accessed 31 Oct 2013)

Image: © Tribalium |

Categories: Governance

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. well said Pip. I am afraid Globalization has developed more problems than it has helped. Greed is usually the motivation behind poor ethics. Cheers John

  2. Oh dear. I hadn’t bought any clothes in a long time, then finally caved last week and bought a new pair of jeans and a sweatshirt-vest. I’m sure I should know better but I didn’t think to look where they were made… guess I’m out of practice… *guilt*.


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