Tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh went on strike last week in the first major unrest to hit the world’s second biggest garment manufacturer since a massive, deadly accident in 2013 spurred labour reforms and sparked an ethical fashion revolution around the world.

The strikes for higher wages lead factory owners to fire at least 1,500 workers, while police arrested 30 people, including seven union leaders. Dozens of factories were closed for days but have since reopened, and most workers have returned to their posts. But labour activists say some workers fear for their safety or jobs because of the strikes. Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Exporters Association President Siddiqur Rahman said incremental steps are being taken to address concerns. He discouraged “innocent workers” from “conspiring to create chaos in the country”.

In the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory complex collapse that killed at least 1,130 people, big Western retailers like H&M and Walmart formed agreements to improve factory conditions and worker safety in Bangladesh. The incident also spurred a socially conscious movement for more transparent supply chains and working conditions.

But while workers in Bangladesh say some structural improvements have been made, and buildings are safer, they say repression of labour rights continues. And around the world, poverty-level wages, long hours, unsafe conditions, physical and verbal abuse in garment factories are rampant.

According to the DC-based Worker Rights Consortium, labour costs make up a small fraction of big retailers’ expenses, yet concrete changes industry-wide in wages and working conditions have been slow within the $2.4 trillion global fashion industry.

Media attention and increased consumer awareness of “sweatshop” conditions have led to an increase in the number of companies claiming to be ethical and sustainable. But is it just a gimmick? Finding ethical manufacturers is difficult, and supply chains are notoriously labyrinthine. It’s common practice for factories to outsource work to an “underground” factory without their client’s knowledge to complete a large order on time. It is often at these sites where conditions are the worst. Critics also say ethical fashion is only for a privileged few, and the average person can’t afford the price tags that go along with ethical business practices.

What more can be done to raise labour standards to create a more ethical business model for the fashion industry in Bangladesh and beyond? 

In this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Scott Nova @4WorkerRights
Executive Director, Worker Rights Consortium

Rob Wayss @banglaccord
Executive Director, Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

Natalie Grillon @project_JUST
Co-Founder, Project JUST

Saydia Gulrukh
Labor Rights Activist

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in comments section below.