A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to go through my closet to get rid of clothes that I didn’t need anymore. As I folded the clothing that I didn’t want into a donation bag, I noticed on the tags that most of them were made in developing countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Why were my Adidas track pants made in Vietnam when they could’ve just been made in Canada or the United States? The answer, of course, is money. These big companies can get away with manufacturing in these countries for a fraction of the price, cutting costs in any way to get the best margin possible. This race to the bottom has created an industry in which labour abuses are the norm.
The largest reason why clothes are made in developing countries is because of the cheap labour that is offered. People in these countries are extremely poor and vulnerable, and the factories take advantage of that. The workers there would rather work for close to nothing than have nothing at all. Wages are also extremely low in developing countries. For example, Cambodia’s monthly minimum wage is $243 Cdn. By comparison, someone working full-time at minimum wage in British Columbia would make $2,113 Cdn.
Another factor is that labour jobs are not getting filled in developed nations like Canada. In a Canadian Federation of Independence Business article, it identifies that in the fourth quarter of 2018 there were 409,000 job vacancies in the labour industry.
Garment factory workers in developing countries are treated like slaves. They are forced to work 8-11 hour days with little to no break. If they stop working, they can be subject to physical or verbal abuse from their bosses. In addition, safety measures are not taken into consideration for most of these factories. Masks, goggles, and other equipment are frequently not handed to the worker and dust accumulation, heat, and improper ventilation systems all contribute to the poor health setting that the workers experience. A factory in Pakistan had to be shut down after similar hazards were found. There were frequent electricity shortages and when they occurred the workers couldn’t work, therefore they’d have to work longer hours to make up for the time. There was also dust accumulation from pieces of cloth and exposure to poisonous chemicals and dyes. Also, a factory owned in Cambodia by Lin Wen Chih Sunstone Garment Enterprises Co. twenty workers collapsed in a span of minutes. Workers said they lost consciousness after inhaling a chemical smell emanating from a dye kiln that operated over night. The heat generated from closed windows, switched off fans, and a hot day all contributed to being as problematic as it was. Awful working conditions sustain a higher profit. Maintenance is quite expensive, and these factories avoid repair by whatever means necessary.
This issue resulted in the deadliest garment factory disaster in human history. An eight-story commercial building called the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring more than 2,000 in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013. Before the collapse, workers spotted cracks on the walls, but their bosses threatened them that if they didn’t come to work they would get fired. They knew about the structural issues the building had but continued anyway. Forty-one people were charged with murder and will face the death penalty if proven guilty, and the trial is still ongoing. To prevent similar tragedies from happening again, more than 200 apparel companies from over 20 countries signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. As a result of the accord, 97,000 of 132,000 hazards found at factories in Bangladesh have been eliminated. This accord is continuing to improve the worker’s rights. Many clothing brands are coming together to help protect foreign garment factory workers, but some still don’t see the problems.
Eight months before the collapse of Rana Plaza, The Children’s Place, a children’s clothing company, produced more than 120,000 pounds of clothing in the building. Other companies like Zara, Walmart, Benetton, and Joe Fresh had all produced apparel there. The Children’s Place and Joe Fresh’s involvement in the accident resulted in numerous protests and lawsuits. The Children’s Place contributed a mere $450,000 USD to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund when companies of similar size donated fifteen times the amount. On March 12, 2015, thirty demonstrators, including a survivor of the collapse, organized a peaceful protest at the company’s headquarters in order to promote proper compensation. The police were immediately called and all of them were arrested. The company remained as quiet as possible about the subject. A lawsuit was filed against them for being held directly responsible for the tragedy with two other companies, but the lawsuit was dismissed. The Canadian company Loblaws who is behind Joe Fresh could potentially have a 2-billion class-action lawsuit that could reach the Supreme Court of Canada.
A majority of all clothing brands are accountable for some of these corrupt actions. Nike is accused of having multiple sweatshops and not paying their workers a living wage. Lululemon has ninety-seven percent of its eight-five factories outside of Canada, and most of them are speculated to pay “slave wages” and have bad conditions in their factories. In fact, the conditions were so bad that a factory in Cambodia called Sabrina Garment Manufacturing went on strike. Forever 21 is one of the only fast fashion brands that still refuse to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. They also do not pay a living wage to their employees across the supply train.
Despite the overwhelming amount of unethical clothing brands, there are ethical ones out there. Smaller clothing brands are among the highest rated ethical brands when it comes to how they treat their workers. Unlike big corporations which mass produce their design, smaller companies create limited runs usually within the city or country the brand originated. Everlane has excellent practices for their workers, even with their factories in developing countries. They are one of the most transparent brands on the market. They spend months finding the best factories and build strong personal relationships with the factory owners and the workers. They also reveal the true costs of their clothes and share the factory and production stories behind each clothing piece. They still need to improve on some things and their prices are a bit high, but this clothing brand is really striving in the right direction.
Clothing factories are inhumane but the problem is becoming too big to ignore. Educating ourselves before buying is crucial to get an understanding of how our consumer decisions can affect others. There are many great organizations to consider if you want to make a change and help resolve the issues in these factories. Two of them are the Clean Clothes Campaign and Business and Human Rights Resource Center. These organizations give a much needed voice that the garment factories workers need. Too many lives have been lost or impaired because of this issue. As Amber Valletta, a model and entrepreneur stated, “No one wants to wear clothes that were made from someone’s blood.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons/DSCN1647