Outsourcing injustice in apparel

When lives are sacrificed, the social burden and hidden costs of making cheap clothes skyrockets.

The apparel industry brings the impoverished nation - Bangladesh - approximately $20bn annually, but the women and girls who work there labour under conditions very similar to those of American workers a century ago [Reuters]

As American shoppers stormed retail stores for Holiday deals, Bangladesh experienced a much bleaker Black Friday when 112 garment workers lost their lives in a fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. The tragedy in Bangladesh’s industrial district occurred when fire erupted behind the factory’s locked doors, an eerie parallel to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which claimed the lives of 100 girls in New York City’s garment district in 1911.

The fire at Tazreen factory, an unauthorised sub-contracted supplier to Walmart and other global retail brands, is a reminder that when it comes to human rights and workers’ rights, we haven’t come as far as we might think. As citizens, we expect labour laws to protect us, but as consumers, we are often oblivious to the conditions of those labouring to make the goods that we consume, especially those made in the developing world. In many ways, Americans have succeeded in ridding our economic system of injustice. In others, we have merely outsourced it.

It’s hard to believe, but 100 years ago, conditions for domestic apparel workers in America were similar to those in today’s third-world sweatshops. Consider 17-year-old New York factory worker Katie Weiner. Like other immigrant girls, Katie worked in a factory that made the shirtwaist, an all-occasion blouse worn with an ankle-length skirt.

The booming ready-to-wear industry made the stylish shirtwaist affordable to almost everyone, but with hidden social costs. A typical shirtwaist maker worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and earned about $6 per week. She was often required to use her own needles, thread, irons and occasionally her own sewing machine. A young worker described one factory as, “unsanitary – that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used”.  

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

As unsavoury as Katie’s daily life probably was, her death is unthinkable. Katie was one of 146 shirtwaist makers, mostly teenage girls, who perished in a fire that broke out at the headquarters of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. Within ten minutes of the fire starting, the entire ninth floor where Katie worked was ablaze. 

 Nicolas Haque updates on Bangladesh
fire situation

As flames leapt from workstation to workstation, only a few survivors managed to flee because the doors to the fire escapes were locked (Triangle Factory management kept the steel doors locked to discourage bathroom breaks and prevent the interruption of work). Rescue workers found skeletons leaning over sewing machines and melted bodies huddled against doors. Many girls died while jumping to their deaths from the roof of the 10-storey Asch building.

Public outrage over the cruel treatment and senseless deaths of so many girls contributed to legislation that would protect American workers ever more from such atrocities. For the better part of the 20th century, the garment district thrived, offering employment, freedom and entrée to the middle class for thousands of immigrant workers. But today, the district that came to embody capitalism at its finest is, in terms of the garment industry, a shadow of its former self. 

In 1965, the garment district made 95 percent of our clothing; now it makes only 5 percent of the clothes we buy. Yesterday’s Seventh Avenue apparel workers have become today’s third-world factory workers. The garment industry is now Bangladesh’s largest income earner, employing more than four million workers. 

The apparel industry brings the impoverished nation approximately $20bn annually, but the women and girls who work there labour under conditions very similar to those of American workers a century ago.  

Since 2005, more than 700 apparel workers have died in sweatshop fires while sewing clothing for some of the biggest US retailers. In 2006, for example, at least 91 workers lost their lives in a fire in the KTS Textile Industries Ltd Factory, a sweatshop in Bangladesh that made garments and textiles for export, mainly to the United States.  

Similar to the Tazreen Fashions and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedies, the main emergency exit was locked when fire struck. Many of the 12, 13, 14 and 15-year-old girls, paid just seven cents per hour for their labour-intensive work, jumped to their deaths from the three-storey industrial building. Bodies were burned beyond recognition.

Ethical labour practices

Due to the relentless pursuit of low-cost labour and the lack of accountability inherent in a global supply chain, companies will have to learn to work with labour rights groups to mandate and track compliance. 

“Since 2005, more than 700 apparel workers have died in sweatshop fires while sewing clothing for some of the biggest US retailers.”

Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, for example, agreed to work with watchdog groups to introduce new fire safety standards at their supplier factories. Gap Inc, which operates the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime and Athleta brands, instead decided to go it alone with its own corporate-controlled programme.

With limited oversight by worker organisations and no transparency, such measures are not good enough to protect vulnerable workers. Gap ought to have learned that grim lesson from experience: The company had other corporate-controlled programmes already in place when 29 workers were killed at their Bangladeshi supplier in December 2010.  

As for the tragedy at Tazreen Fashions, Walmart, the second largest buyer of Bangladesh apparel after H&M, did not acknowledge responsibility until photos of their merchandise at the factory confirmed culpability. Given corporations’ lack of transparency, we cannot assume that they will do the right thing on their own.  

As companies work to integrate ethical labour practices into their supply chains, conscious consumers should push for meaningful expressions of corporate social responsibility. To do this, we must learn to discern the difference between fancy PR and genuine leadership, admittedly not easy to do.

Fortunately, NGOs and advocacy organisations such as the International Labour Rights Forum exist to hold companies accountable to claims of improving safety, working conditions and wages, and to educate stakeholders on leading industry standards. 

Also, action networks such as Green America and Change.org provide petitions to give us a voice. Of course, wielding our purchasing power responsibly may be the best way to demand ethical practices. 

When lives are sacrificed, the social burden and hidden costs of making cheap clothes skyrockets. Not getting involved or changing habits may be easier, but it does carry a price. For every dollar we save on a good bargain, we risk losing a little piece of our humanity in the process.

Anna M Clark is president of EarthPeople and the author of Green, American Style: Becoming Earth-Friendly and Reaping the Benefits. She has written for The Guardian and The Huffington Post and writes the Eco-Leadership column for Greenbiz.com. She is a Public Voices fellow at The Op-Ed Project and writes on culture, leadership and sustainability.