Revisiting the Bangladesh Factory Collapse: The Unspoken Evils of the Clothing Industry

Revisiting the Bangladesh Factory Collapse: The Unspoken Evils of the Clothing Industry

Two years later, the Bangladesh court is still following up on the 2013 Bangladesh Factory Collapse that killed over a thousand workers and injured two thousand more. Among them is the owner Sohel Rana, who compelled his workers to return to work even after an engineer ruled the building unsafe when workers discovering cracking plaster in the eight-story building. The top four stories should not have even existed by safety regulation, as the building was built on swampy ground.

Clothing brands that are known to use sweatshops.
Clothing brands that are known to use sweatshops.

The clothing industry is a prime example of the reaches of globalization, corporations expanding their bases across continents to outsource manufacturing and labor. Among these companies are brands H&M, Nordstrom, Juicy Couture and athletic brands Nike, Adidas, among others. These companies are notorious for employing “sweatshops,” factories with inconceivably poor conditions. These factories spring up all over South Asian countries where infrastructure is underdeveloped and cheap labor is prevalent.

The Dhaka Bangladesh factory is only one example. The consumer population is largely unaware of this other end of the spectrum where people work the majority of the day in inhumane environments in order to make below the minimum wage. “I spend all day on my feet, working with hot vapor that usually burns my skin,” a Mexican worker, Alvaro Saavedra Anzures, “We have to meet the quota of 1,000 pieces per day. That translates to more than a piece every minute. The quota is so high that we cannot even go to the bathroom or drink water or anything for the whole day.”

“The promise of globalization was that it was going to be a win-win situation,” said a speaker in The True Cost, a documentary of the clothing economy. “Consumers buy cheaper goods, and people in the poorer parts of the world will get jobs. Those jobs would them an opportunity to work themselves out of poverty.” But, as one woman notes, “The actual business model is completely unsustainable.” []

In order to maximize profit, corporations cut costs, which feeds into poor labor conditions and low wages, sacrificing the welfare of their workers. People are seen as production units and suffer abuse from their supervisors. “They don’t respect us as human beings,” said a Nicaraguan worker.

A worker in El Salvador earns about 24 cents for an NBA jersey that sells for $140 in the U.S., even though this wage, according to the government, leaves a worker in “abject poverty.” In Mexico workers producing jeans for Gap earn as little as 28 cents an hour, and in Haiti and Nicaragua, wages are even lower.

Mexico is one of many countries in which the government cooperates with factory owners to bust organizing drives. In Nicaragua and Philippines where labor has a long history, unions are tolerated but not in the “free trade” zones where most sweatshops are located. Workers “leave their liberty at the factory gates” quotes Global Exchange.

For some corporations, exposing these crimes has proven effective for change. In 1992 Jeff Ballinger published a report titled “The new free-trade heel: Nike’s profits jump on the backs of Asian workers” in Harper’s Magazine. In 2005, after facing public criticism and after a long struggle to change code of conduct, Nike published a 108-page report detailing conditions in its South Asian factories in an effort to be transparent. Though its steps do not negate the tragedies set in motion in 2013 and elsewhere, Nike sets a precedent for sustainable action.