The Hidden Human Cost of Our Clothing #PayUp

In the early hours of April 24th, 2013, the Rana Plaza – an eight-story garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh – collapsed in less than 90 seconds, bringing down 1,134 human lives with it and injuring a further 2,500, leaving only the ground floor intact.


This tragic incident is considered one of the most lethal structural failures of recent times. Several warnings were given concerning the emerging cracks in the building’s infrastructure, and already anxious workers – some of whom begged not to be sent inside – were ordered to return to work. Many unions consider it “mass industrial homicide”, and it is still the deadliest garment factory disaster in history.


The labourers who lost their lives in Rana Plaza were creating apparel for Western brands we all likely recognise, from high street to high end - Primark, Matalan, Mango, Gucci and Versace, to name just a few. The global fashion manufacturing industry, worth $1.5 trillion a year, employs close to five million Bangladeshis, who are said to be the lowest wage earners of garment workers worldwide. Reported as earning little more than $96 per month, this disparity allows for the ever-increasing profits and expansion of fashion brand moguls.



Rana Plaza by Sean Robertson

International coverage of the horror witnessed in Dhaka placed increasing pressure on both the Bangladeshi government and Western retailers to rectify the flagrant ineptitude that could allow an incident of such enormity. Despite, albeit often minor, improvements to working conditions with 250 companies signing the ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’ and ‘Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety’ initiatives - it seems the current of rights violations that the country’s garment workers continually fight against is relentless.

7 years on from Rana Plaza, as country after country went into lockdown to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus, the industry took an economic hit as far fewer people went retail shopping. No one needed to buy new jeans or t-shirts or dresses to self-isolate.


Instead of taking into account the exceptional situation we all find ourselves in, various companies - many of whom were once in the original 250 who promised better conditions for Bangladeshi workers, including Primark, JCPenney, Gap, and Philip Green’s Arcadia Group - almost immediately cancelled orders for already finished products. Meaning masses of rejected clothing pile high in factories, discarded alongside promises of payment for labour. An estimated 3.5 billion dollars worth of cancellations has accumulated in recent weeks, with many retailers outright refusing to honour their contracts and pay dues for work completed.


When the Rana Plaza collapsed Khaleda was working there as a line sewing operator. Photo by Narayanan Debnath.

As of today, 4.1 million workers, who are the lifeblood of this industry, are teetering on the brink of extreme poverty and around 60% of workers may soon be facing homelessness. Multi-millionaire business owners, sometimes closer to billionaire in the case of Kylie Jenner, attempt to salvage their plummeting profits at the expense of mostly female, lowly paid workers who often have multiple mouths to feed, depending on them and their income.

There is also the environmental toll to consider amongst all of this, the fast fashion industry is already infamous for being one of the leading contributors to global carbon emissions, with heaps of apparel unlikely to be sold and factory owners not being able to bear the financial burden of keeping these in storage, the clothing risks being sent to landfills.


Between continuous human rights violations and the debilitating impact of fast fashion on our planet, we need to start making a genuine effort to consume more ethically where we can afford to do so, and stand up for the rights of these workers when they are too often overlooked. As avid consumers of these products, we have more power than we believe in the actions these brands choose to take.

The recent #PayUp and #WhoMadeYourClothes hashtags have taken off on social media with many committing themselves to boycotting these particular organisations and attempting to hold them accountable. Thus far Adidas, Target and ASOS, amongst others, have responded to the increasing pressure and agreed to pay. People have also used their platforms to shed light on the hidden process our clothing must go through before it hits the racks of our local shopping malls, at which point we are unlikely to consider the true cost of what we are seeing, buying and wearing - and ultimately, supporting.

How often do we pick up these pieces of clothing and think beyond how much we like or dislike them at a glance, to consider the conditions under which they were made - the very real, the very human price that must be paid for our convenience? The Western fast fashion industry is too frequently a conglomerate that crushes the back of the Bangladeshi factory worker. No one should have to be exploited or suffer or die for fashion.


Sign the petition #PayUp for orders, save lives.

More information about supporting garment workers can be found here: https://www.supportgarmentworkers.org/payup-fashion

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