‘I never thought I would have to saw off my own arm or visit my younger sisters grave’ were just some of the words spoken by one of the surviving victims of the Rana Plaza disaster, quite possibly one of the worst industrial catastrophes in recent times.
I knew I would find this article hard to write, but after watching the BBC’s documentary, ‘This World – Clothes to die for’, which aired recently I felt compelled to get involved somehow.
I remember reading about this in Drapers the day after it happened whist sat in shock in my studio at work, where I design prints for UK fabric which we supply to the British high street- ASOS, Arcadia, River Island to name a few. The constant pressure from buyers for cheaper fabrics, cheaper manufacture, larger profit margins and fast turn around’s is something the company I work for struggle with every single day. Competition from the Far East is no longer something we can compete with. I think it’s one of the most ruthless industries to be a part of and the truth behind fast high street fashion is far from glamourous.
When you pick up a top in Primark with a price tag of £3 you fling it into your basket with several other items. It’s so cheap you don’t even bother to try it on, you might even grab the same top in another colour. We live in a world of throw away fashion, garments that are literally disposable. Do you ever stop to think how this is even sustainable? This is a topic that has been heavily covered since the collapse of the Rana Plaza and the fire in the Tazreen clothing factory in Bangladesh, but waiting until these incidents happen to make changes is just far too late. All the compensation in the world is not going to bring back sons and daughters, mothers and sisters. Thousands of lives and families have been torn apart just so people in the western world can buy a cheap dress which they can chuck away the morning after.
80% of Bangladesh’s export is made up of fashion garments for the Western world. There are over 5600 garment factories in Bangladesh, making it the second biggest apparel manufacturer behind China. I can guarantee if you turn all the garments in your wardrobe inside out you will find several labels that state ‘Made in Bangladesh’.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, the legal minimum wage for a factory worker in 2013 was about £15 a week, but many factories do not even pay this much. The factories within the Rana Plaza paid their workers around £9 a week. Workers would often work shifts starting at 7am and finishing after midnight. That’s a 17 hour shift! For overtime they would be paid an extra 25p a day and for each shift the workers would be paid the equivalent of around £1.50.
The working conditions within these factories can be absolutely appalling and unbearably hot. Child labour is a familiar sight as is physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
The work and hours are exhausting, the environment is extremely hazardous and there is no regard for health and fire safety. Fire doors are often bolted shut to prevent workers taking breaks outside or leaving early. There are no checks carried out on any of the machinery and there is very little ventilation. Since 1990 more than 400 workers have died and several thousand more have been injured in 50 major factory fires, over 100 people were killed and over 200 more seriously injured in the fire in the Tazreen factory on the 24th of November 2012.
The most shocking incident so far occurred on the morning of the 24th of April in 2013. The Rana Plaza, an eight story high commercial building that housed garment factories over 5 of its floors, collapsed killing over 1000 people.
Within the Rana Plaza were a number of garment factories that collectively employed around 5000 people. The garments being manufactured within these factories were all being exported to Western countries. Popular brands known to have ordered clothes to be manufactured within the Rana Plaza include, Primark, Bon Marche, Matalan, Benetton, Forever 21, Mango, and Monsoon.
The Rana Plaza was owned by Sohel Rana. He was a well-known and intimidating individual. The garment factories rented space within the building. Business was so good that in 2009 Sohel Rana somehow managed to obtain permits to expand the building and added an extra 3 floors to fill with more factories and also allowed the installation of massive generators within these upper levels. The foundations for the building had been built with the intention of supporting only 5 stories.
On the 23rd of April 2013 a crack appeared in a pillar on the third floor. The pillar became distorted and the crack travelled through it and across the ceiling. At around 10am the workers in the garment factories were instructed to evacuate the building. News reporters flocked to the area. Sohel Rana later appeared at a news conference confirming that the crack had been seen by engineers and that the building was safe, he asked reporters not to publish their stories in the papers or broadcast them on the news. The factory workers were told to report to work as usual the following morning.
Early on the morning of the 24th of April 2013 the workers gathered in the space outside the building. They were afraid and did not want to go inside. Some businesses on the ground floor which included a bank had deemed the building unsafe and had not opened that day. Sohel Rana and the factory owners insisted that the building was safe. The workers were scolded for remaining outside and were threatened with losing their month’s wage. They were told an engineer had been called and had guaranteed that the building would stand for a further 100 years. The workers were then forced inside and began their shifts.
At 8.45 am the power in the building went out. After a second or 2 the generators that were located in the top 3 floors kicked in and the power returned. The force of the generators turning on caused the building to shake, workers inside reported it felt like an earthquake, others thought that the building had been hit by several bombs.
It took just 90 seconds for the 8 story building to completely collapse. Over 1000 lives were ended instantly, thousands more were changed forever. I can’t even begin to imagine the true scale and horror of it.
Over the hours and days that followed survivors were slowly pulled from the rubble by desperate rescuers, fire-fighters, soldiers and frantic family members. Some lucky ones escaped almost unharmed or with minor injuries, others were pinned down by broken walls, concrete blocks, lumps of broken machinery, iron rods, which had once supported the walls and steel beams. Amongst the chaos were thousands of dresses, tops, jeans and shirts many now stained with blood. Doctors and paramedics were in short supply. After days of being pinned under large pieces of rubble that couldn’t be moved by human hands and were too precariously placed for cranes to lift, people were getting desperate. Some were trapped completely in small pockets of air and space feet below the surface of the rubble, their cries went unheard. They were surrounded by crushed bodies and severed limbs, which were beginning to decompose in the intense heat. Survivors were now having to resort to drinking their own urine and blood to survive. Rescuers reported watching trapped victims bite into their own flesh to quench their thirst.
Rescuers with little or no medical training were having to perform the most unthinkable of amputations with inadequate, blunt instruments with no anaesthetic to free people who were pinned under the concrete by an arm or a leg. One woman recalled how she was trapped under a fallen wall by her arm which had been completely crushed. On the second day rescuers managed to reach her tomb, but the opening was too small for them to crawl inside. They handed her a saw through the small gap. Over the next 2 hours she had no choice but to saw off her own arm to free herself. She said the only thought she held in her mind was that of her sister, whom had also been working in the factory. Unfortunately she later found out that her sister had been one of the unlucky ones.
I wondered for a while whether to include some of these photo’s given how graphic and shocking they are, sometimes though a picture speaks a thousand words and I simply cannot sum up the horror of this in words.
How should the fashion industry react to this disaster? It may all seem horrendous on the front of it, workers being paid some of the lowest wages in the world, safety checks being ignored, fires, collapses, fatalities. But despite its inadequacies the fashion industry has in fact provided Bangladesh with a life source in terms of business, giving jobs to thousands of people who could otherwise have no means to provide for their families. As such taking this essential industry from Bangladesh is not the answer, but making changes is.
A week after the catastrophe a new document was created named the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. It is a five year legally binding agreement between international labour organisations, non-government organisations and retailers engaged in the textiles industry to maintain minimum safety standards. Nearly 100 worldwide retailers have now signed this. Many of the retailers who were using the Rana Plaza to manufacture paid out compensation to the families of the victims. Primark, being the most willing, paying out over 6 million pounds in compensation, they also have a page on their website stating their part in the disaster and what they have done, and are doing to prevent further incidents and improve working conditions.
On December the 1st 2013 the minimum wage for Bangladesh’s factory workers was raised by 77%. This was a reaction to riots that broke out all across the country following the Rana Plaza collapse which forced over 250 garment factories to close down.
Is this going to be enough though? Will the managers of factories in Bangladesh and other third world countries still cut corners and ignore the new agreements? Will the ever constant pressure from the fashion industry for cheaper production and faster turnaround’s lead to more lives being lost? I can’t speak for them, but I can suggest an idea of what we can do to help. Ultimately at least some of the responsibility for the current state of the fashion industry lies with the consumer. As long as garments at these ridiculous low end prices are in high demand the retailers will always search for factories that offer the lowest prices and fastest delivery rates over the welfare of their employees. One could ask whether western society will ever change its buying habits. Is this fast fashion world that we live in going to provide far too much temptation? It could be so easy to turn a blind eye and accept no responsibility. All we can do now is educate ourselves on what really goes on in this industry, try to raise awareness of this and decide for ourselves how to go from here.
This world – Clothes to die for (BBC)
www.annemain.com – After Rana Plaza Report
The Guardian – Rana Plaza: One year on from the Bangladesh factory disaster
www.bloomberg.com – Bangladesh raises minimum wage for garments workers after unrest.