Category Archives: Critical Fashion

An Open Letter to UNC President Ross and Chancellor Folt: Commit to the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Update: This article is now re-published in the Huffington Post (in slightly abridged form!)

I am writing as a blogger and graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill to express my concern about UNC’s current unwillingness to join with other private and public universities to support tougher safety standards for the purchase of UNC branded clothing. I fear that failure to do so will only rebound to negatively affect our own image into the future. I urge you to require all university licensees to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

As you well know, on the evening of April 23, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500 in what has now been deemed the deadliest garment factory collapse in history. Since then, students across this nation have taken action. Through the hard work of United Students Against Sweatshops, the largest student coalition since the anti-apartheid movement, bringing together 150 University and college affiliates nationwide, twenty universities have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord. This accord is an unprecedented, legally-binding agreement between apparel companies and global and Bangladesh unions that has been joined by over 150 brands and retailers worldwide. These universities now require that all of their licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh sign the Accord as well, forcing them to take responsibility for their subcontracted factories in a meaningful and committed way that can “transform the garment industry from deathtraps to safe workplaces.”

The universities that have signed the Accord have included prominent private institutions such as Duke, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, and large state schools similar in size and reputation to UNC-Chapel Hill, such as Michigan, Penn-State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Washington-Seattle.

It has been exciting to witness such a diverse range of institutions that have demonstrated an investment in valuing workers’ voices and lives. It has thus been disappointing and frustrating that neither of you, President Ross and Chancellor Folt, has made any kind of similar commitment on this issue.

Since the fall, the UNC End Deathtraps coalition has been campaigning persistently to get Chancellor Folt to sign the Accord. Workers, students, community members, the Chapel Hill Town Council, and the University’s Licensing Labor Code advisory Committee (LLCAC) – a committee composed of faculty, students and administrators – have strongly recommended that the Accord is the best option for both workers and UNC.

Despite this adoption of best practices elsewhere, President Ross, your recent memo, delivered the night before the one year anniversary of Rana, states that licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh should be given the option to sign on to either the Bangladesh Accord or the Alliance for Worker Safety. But the Alliance is a company-controlled, non-binding agreement that has been critiqued for its exclusion of workers and their representatives and for its failure to obligate brands to pay for factory safety renovations. If licensees choose to sign the Alliance, then they would not be required to make any tangible changes in garment and apparel factory workplace safety. Instead, they would be resorting to the same self-regulatory approaches that have tragically failed workers far too often. They would be, in essence, doing what they have already done.

Allowing brands to continue to supply to UNC whether or not they sign the Accord would allow current suppliers like North Carolina based VF Corp., owner of North Face, Jansport, Vans, and Timberland, to continue to escape accountability for their workers’ safety. VF Corporation has an alarmingly sizeable presence in Bangladesh, sourcing from 91 factories and employing 190,000 workers. Despite its many safety violations that have demonstrated deep negligence and disregard for human rights and safety, including a 2010 factory fire that killed twenty-nine workers in a VF supplier factory, VF is refusing to sign the Accord.

UNC’s failure to insist that all licensees sign the Accord only allows VF’s blatant disregard for worker safety to go unchecked. This not only threatens workers’ lives but also negatively impacts UNC’s image. Do you really want to imagine a situation in which a woman’s body is hauled out of an unsafe factory clutching a garment made by VF Corporation, a company with which UNC has a sizeable contract? I know that you are both people who are regarded as having high ethical standards, and I’m sure you would not want this on your conscience.

The LLCAC has worked constructively to examine our standards. As Dr. Steve May, a professor on the committee put it, “There was no doubt in our mind that the Accord would be the best option for workers and UNC. Our committee saw very few reasons to go with the Alliance and plenty of risks.”

Given that most of the other major licensees with collegiate production in Bangladesh have signed the Accord, including Adidas, Knight’s Apparel, Fruit of the Loom, and Top of the World, this recent decision made by Tom Ross and supported by you, Chancellor Folt, to give brands the option to ‘choose’ between the Alliance or the Accord seems to stem from a reluctance to terminate VF corporation’s contract if it does not join the Accord. What is UNC’s interest in protecting VF’s Bangladesh operations?

On the contrary could you not make an argument that the more UNC supports the Accord, the greater is the chance that jobs might come home to North Carolina’s textile factories that were priced out of the global market by our collective indifference to the conditions that foreign workers slaved in overseas?

The Chapel Hill town council has recognized this. After being approached by University students, they agreed to require that their city uniforms only be sourced from apparel producers that have signed on to the Accord. As Maria Palmer, town council member put it, “I believe North Carolina workers should be able to compete on a level playing field, and for the textile corporations like Greensboro-based VF to take their manufacturing jobs to Asia and pay their workers less than $100 per month and force them to work in dangerous and difficult conditions, and say they can not do anything about it, is a slap in the face of our workers here as well as abroad.”

It is embarrassing that UNC’s leadership has chosen to keep a contract with a corporation that has not only killed 29 people in Bangladesh, but has worsened conditions in the state by abandoning its local workers. And it is beyond disappointing that you both have chosen to side with a corporation over the needs and requests of its workers, your students, and the community in which you both live.

For the last few years, UNC has been plagued by plagiarism scandals and charges of massive Title IX violations. I was encouraged by a recent email you sent, Chancellor Folt, in honor of sexual assault awareness month, in which you stressed the importance of educating “our communities about the impact of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence.”

I would love to see the same amount of concern for the mostly female labor force in the garment industry, many of whom are the same age as the students here in Chapel Hill. These young women are often fired, sexually harassed, and even assaulted for daring to speak up against the injustices they face daily. As Aleya Akter, a Bangladeshi worker who visited UNC this month revealed to students, “When I would go home from work, hired thugs from management would harass me on the street and make threats to me.”

President Ross and Chancellor Folt, I urge you to reaffirm your commitment to the highest ethical standards and to demonstrate that our university will never sanction behavior that treats workers as though they were disposable. We are all citizens of the same global community, and this is a pressing human rights issue. As leaders of a major university with a prestigious reputation, you could really make a difference both in Bangladesh and by setting an example for your students. It’s time to do the right thing and require all university licensees to sign the Accord. That is the Carolina Way.

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of ILRF).

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of Solidarity Center).

Are you a UNC student/alum/supporter? Want to let President Ross and Chancellor Folt know that you want them to support the Accord?

To contact President Ross: Phone: (919) 962-9000 and Email: tomross@northcarolina.edu

To contact Chancellor Folt: Phone: (919) 962-1365 and Email: chancellor@unc.edu

Tweet @ChancellorFolt End Deathtraps! Do the right thing for workers and UNC! #SaveLivesAddTheAccord

My Related Posts:

Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

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Kahindo Mateene: An African Designer Making a Difference

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches using scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

Designer Kahindo Mateene is producing a line of clutches upcycling scraps from her line of apparel, Modahnik.

When designer Kahindo Mateene came to the United States at the tender age of seventeen to attend college, her classmates couldn’t stop asking where she got her clothes. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo who had also lived and traveled extensively in Africa, Europe, and North America, the global nomad was a little taken aback by the attention she received for her vibrant, multi-cultural hand-made designs. After studying fashion at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, Kahindo was finally able to pursue her dream of creating a line that would fuse her African heritage with western design sensibilities. In 2009 she launched Modahnik, a sophisticated, sexy couture collection that features bright colors and bold prints for the every-day, modern woman. Besides earning her respect in the fashion industry and a spot in season twelve of Project Runway (yes girlfriends, the Project Runway), Modahnik has also given her a platform to share her culture with the world and give back to women in Africa.

Angeline sews a Modahnik clutch.

Angeline, a ‘mama’ from Mamafrica, sews a Modahnik clutch.

In 2011 Kahindo created a line in Kenya using fair trade practices, and just recently she launched a Kickstarter campaign for Mamafrica, an amazing organization (which I wrote about here) that provides economic opportunity, education, and healing arts programs for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These women, or ‘mamas,’ most of whom are recovering from trauma as both rape and war survivors, will be making clutches from the repurposed fabric left over from previous Modahnik collections. As Kahindo cites in her moving story about Aswifewe, one of the Mamafrica women who is a rape survivor, “the support of this Kickstarter project gives Aswifewe and other women like her the chance to have a new life, escape sexual violence, and support her family by finding work with Mamafrica in making our clutches.” The Kickstarter campaign ends April 20 and the time is running out, gfs!

Kahindo cites the Sapeurs, a sartorial subculture from the DRC, as one of her main inspirations.

Kahindo cites the Sapeurs, a sartorial subculture from the DRC, as one of her main inspirations.

I was thrilled to be able to talk to Kahindo more about her project with Mamafrica, her perspective on ethical fashion, and her aesthetic inspirations. Her passion and energy is contagious, and I felt like we could have easily chatted for hours. It was fascinating to learn about her design process, and from where she draws ideas for her collections.  She cites traveling to new places as a guaranteed form of inspiration for her, since it opens her mind and creativity to new tastes, sounds, culture, architecture, and people.  She also mentioned menswear, the shows Game of Thrones and Mad Men, and the sharp architectural edges of the Louvre in Paris as recent inspirations for her line. Of course she frequently draws from Africa, particularly the avant-garde art and culture of the Congo. She grew up admiring the spirit of the ‘Sapeurs,’ a sartorial subcultural group celebrated for their elegance, originality, and flair.

From the Modahnik Spring/Summer 2014 collection. The line has the tagline of "Modern. African. Ethical."

From the Modahnik Spring/Summer 2014 collection. The site has the tagline of “Modern. African. Ethical.”

The fashion world has long been fascinated by Africa, with designers from Louis Vuitton to Gwen Stefani pulling inspiration from the continent for their collections. While the clothes have often been gorgeous, many have questioned the potentially exploitative practice of using African aesthetics for the “financial and cultural benefits of the West,” especially if they are not incorporating African textiles in their designs or giving back to the communities from which they are derived. Even though Kahindo does think this can be problematic, she also sees the benefits of someone with as huge a platform as Stefani bringing attention to African fashion. Still, she does not want Africa to become a ‘trend.’ This is why she creates her bold prints from tailored pieces of silk that are sophisticated and classic. As she put it, “We’ve made fashion into this disposable thing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I made a dress for a friend six years ago, and she wore it to an event a couple of months ago. The colors and cuts are truly timeless.”

She also believes in the importance of using her privileged position to give back to the women in her home country. This partnership with Mamafrica is important to her because as she puts it,

“I know that I’m blessed to be in the States to pursue my dream, and I know if it wasn’t for circumstance, it could have been me. My hometown of Goma has been the epicenter of the conflict in the Congo since 1994 and is where a lot of women have been raped. I truly believe in the healing power of the arts, and I would love to use my craft to help empower women healing from trauma. This collaboration will be empowering them with job skills while allowing them to take part in the design process with me. It touches on so many issues that I’m passionate about: job creation, the healing arts, creative expression, ethical consumerism, and empowering women.”

Supporting the mamas will help provide a better life for their children too!

Supporting the mamas will help provide a better life for their children too!

Indeed, Kahindo believes that along with creating sustainable jobs, educating and empowering women is the key to poverty reduction in the Congo and Africa. Her late father instilled the importance of education in her, and pushed for all of his children to attain life’s possibilities regardless of their gender. It is no wonder then that the Brigham Young quote, “You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation,” resonates so deeply. She hopes that this partnership will help create and strengthen educational and economic opportunities for the mamas that will allow them to provide for their families and give their children access to a better life.

Kahindo dreams of one day revitializing the textile industry in Africa.

Kahindo dreams of one day revitializing the textile industry in Africa.

As for the future of ethical fashion, Kahindo believes times are changing. In the wake of global factory fires in countries like Bangladesh, companies are beginning to bring production back stateside as they are faced with human rights violations and growing costs overseas. With that shift in consciousness she hopes that there will also be more of a demand for African-owned brands that put money back into the local economies. The continent is not short of entrepreneurs (and boasts the highest rate of female entrepreneurship in the world), and it is certainly not short of tailors and creative people! Since almost 99% of African textiles are imported from overseas, she dreams of one day helping to revitalize the industry by producing quality clothing for export. And with her ties to different countries throughout the continent, she hopes to collaborate with other co-operatives in the future.

But for now, Kahindo is focusing on her Kickstarter for Mamafrica, which ends in 30 days, on April 20! If the amount is not met, then the project will receive no donations. Even a dollar helps, and you can get a Mamafrica clutch if you contribute a little more! If you can not donate, then please spread the word.  Come on girlfriends, let’s do this!!

The women of Mamafrica, in front of a sign that reads "We Denounce and We Say NO to Violence Against Women!"

The women of Mamafrica, in front of a sign that reads “We Denounce and We Say NO to Violence Against Women!”

Update: A version of this article was re-published on The Huffington Post.

My Related Posts:

Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

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Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than a 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500.

On the evening of April 23, 2013, garment factory employees of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, pleaded with management to take notice of the sudden cracks that had appeared in the walls and foundations. Their requests for evacuation were ignored on the basis that the building owner, Sohel Rana, had just hired an engineer who had pronounced the building safe. The mostly female labor force, who were threatened with losing a month’s pay if they did not return, were ordered to work the next day. As they arrived at the building, the first thing they heard over the loudspeaker was this: “All the workers of Rana Plaza, go to work. The factory has already been repaired.” Just half an hour later, the eight-story building collapsed, killing over 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500. Local workers and relatives were some of the first on the scene, digging out mutilated bodies, including those of children who had been staying at the building’s day care center, from the rubble.

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Never again. Two victims hold each other amid the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse (photo courtesy of Taslima Akhter).

And then, there was that picture. That haunting image of two people clinging to each other for survival, with their lower parts of their bodies buried under concrete and a tear of blood running down the man’s cheek. This photo served as a harsh reminder of what happens when we treat humans as just numbers, or as simply ‘cheap labor’ within a global supply chain that feeds the consumption patterns of the United States and European Union by delivering low-cost clothing from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West. It is an industry that operates according to a logic of distance, in which a consumer is so removed from the condition under which a producer labors that they are less likely to have awareness, let alone any motivation to protest. The consumer was suddenly forced to get close and personal as people around the globe were confronted with the image of that heartbreaking final embrace.

Deemed the worst garment factory disaster in history, it implicated not just the lax regulations of the Bangladeshi garment industry, but companies such as Wal-Mart, The Children’s Place, H&M, Mango, Primark, Joe Fresh, and Benetton which used Bangladesh as a source of cheap labor. There were of course initial attempts to deny responsibility, with Wal-Mart claiming that they never contracted with the factory, and Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith dismissing the collapse as “not really serious” and, an “accident.”

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‘Accidents’ don’t happen again..and again. Bangladeshi Army personnel walks through the rows of burnt sewing machines in the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire, which killed at least 117 people in November, 2012 (photo courtesty of Stringer/AFP/Getty Images).

The factory collapse of Rana was not an accident, as various government officials, corporations, and even certain media outlets have described it. An accident is something that is unexpected, that occurs infrequently, but also is something that is not necessarily preventable.  This tragedy was not an isolated event. It was, in fact, one of several hundred other factory incidents that have killed over 1,000 workers from 1990 to 2012 in Bangladesh, a country that employs four million garment workers, 85 percent of whom are women, in its growing garment industry. And, like the dozens of other factory fires that have been reported across the industry in countries like China, India, and Pakistan, it could have been prevented with proper safety measures and a workplace in which factory managers listened to workers’ concerns.

Walmart Bangladesh factories

Garment workers in Bangladesh, 85% of whom are women, are paid $37 a month…far below the living wage of $120 that is needed to survive. Unions, which can give workers a collective voice, are all but outlawed (photo courtesy of Reuters).

Ultimately, these deadly fires only reveal the exploitative working conditions of an industry that treats its workers as disposable items.  In Bangladesh, a country rich with culture and natural resources but ridden with poverty, the government has long viewed the garment industry as the path to improving a grim standard of living. Currently garments represent nearly 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing export income of $19.1 billion between 2011-2012, making it the second largest exporter of apparel in the world. Yet despite the industry’s rapid growth in the last thirty years, Bangladeshi workers are still the lowest paid garment workers in the world, earning a minimum of $37 a month – far below the living wage of $120 that is needed for basic household necessities. Workers’ efforts to organize for better pay and safety regulations are all but outlawed, and a new labor law that was passed in July has been criticized by labor advocates as actually weakening, rather than strengthening, protections for workers.

Politically connected owner (photo courtesy of AP)

In Bangladesh, factory owners are often entrenched in the political elite. Due to global outrage after the Rana Plaza fire, factory owner Sohel Rana was arrested (photo courtesy of AP).

This isn’t surprising, given that Bangladesh’s legal system has remained largely unchanged from the British imperial era, in which laws were designed to uphold the colonialist power structure and control the population. In fact, many factory owners and members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) are heavily involved in the political elite, often holding government positions that allow them to wield enormous political influence. Given the tremendous emphasis on maximizing wealth in the global economy, it is thus not surprising that governments of poorer countries like Bangladesh often sacrifice human rights at the consummate altar of economic ‘development.’

(photo courtesy of AFP)

Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter found Wal-Mart brands such as Faded Glory in the remains of the Tazreen factory fire. Brands place immense pressure on factories to produce cheap clothing on short deadlines (photo courtesy of AFP).

At the same time, the Bangladesh government may feel trapped when companies such as Wal-Mart and other big retailers place immense pressure on factories to produce forever falling prices by selling cheap and producing quickly on shorter deadlines. Low prices in the garment industry are, after all, the country’s best selling point in the global economy. So suppliers cut their prices at the expense of their workers, who are paid poverty wages and made to work excessive hours. Factory owners, squeezed by their buyers, often find their efforts to invest in factory safety undermined by the pressure to reduce costs.

Companies in turn claim that social auditing programs are an effective way to monitor working conditions in their factories, but these programs have been criticized as corporate-funded, voluntary, and a public relations cover. Who can forget the massive factory fire in Pakistan that killed more than 260 workers last year, which just three weeks before, had been granted certification by the social auditing group, Social Accountability International. Of course, companies could have saved lives by releasing their audit findings to the government and sharing them with Bangladeshi unions and labor rights groups, but they are under no obligation to do that given that these audits are confidential and are treated as their own private intellectual property. Instead, workers’ input is rarely taken into consideration, and those who do dare to complain are often harassed or even terminated.

As Mafusa, a survivor of the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed at least 112 people last November, revealed:

 “We never got our salary on time. We were always informed one day before foreigners came for an audit. We had to clean, make everything neat and we were given instructions about what we had to say like that we get our salary always on the seventh of the month and about our working hours.”

To make matters worse, the global demand for cheap clothing forces many factories to subcontract their work to other suppliers, making it difficult for brands to trace who is making their clothes in an increasingly complex supply chain.

The ever increasing global demand has led to another flagrant human rights violation. Although child labor is illegal, recent reports have revealed the use of children as young as nine working in many of these factories. This reliance on child labor is the devastating consequence of not paying adults a living wage. Yet, instead of investing in workers’ rights and safety upgrades, apparel consumer companies will often choose to run from these factories once they learn that unauthorized work was used to produce their clothing, as Wal-Mart did after the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh.

Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh works undercover in a Bangladesh garment factory with a nine year old girl as her boss:

Several years ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a now controversial piece arguing against the ‘anti-sweatshop’ movement, claiming that for many workers, sweatshops were the only viable option for making a living. He argued for labor advocates to fight for more sweatshops as the best option for workers in the Global South. In Bangladesh, women do indeed come to the cities from the rural areas to work in factories after fleeing environmental destruction and repressive family structures in their home villages. Yet, does that mean they should be forced to endure harassment and abuse from their predominantly male bosses? Or rely on precarious employment in which they are often paid less than their male counterparts, despite being the sole or primary breadwinners in their families? Shouldn’t they have a right to a workplace that doesn’t push their bodies to the point of exhaustion, that doesn’t fire them once they get pregnant, and that gives them a voice and treats them with a measure of dignity?

Morium Begum lost her baby (photo courtesy of thestar.com)

A Bangladesh factory that sews garments for The Gap and Old Navy was implicated in abusing their pregnant workers. Morium Begum, shown here with her husband Golzar, lost her baby after being forced to work 100 hours a week (photo courtesy of thestar.com).

Kristof may have been well-meaning, but his argument didn’t address the true intent of the anti-sweatshop movement, which is to progress the cause of workers’ rights and advocate for living wages by pressuring multinational corporations to improve factory conditions. The international climate is starting to change as people wake up to the fact that they shouldn’t put clothes on their back that were made in conditions that have not been seen in the West since the Industrial Revolution. Currently, over 100 apparel brands and retailers in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an unprecedented legally-binding agreement that was created by Bangladeshi and global trade unions in alliance with leading NGOs and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to ensure safety in Bangladeshi factories.  This five-year contract will require independent safety inspections of their facilities, public reporting, safety upgrades financed by brands, the integration of workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, and higher wages.

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“There’s an abundance of wealth in the industry, so why can’t we have fair treatment for workers?” – Sarah Ziff, model who protested with Bangladesh activists at Nautica’s Spring 2014 show.

The Accord has been hailed as a transformative move away from the corporate-controlled social auditing programs that rely on largely “voluntary, confidential, and top-down” initiatives. It has also been supported broadly, with senators, students, and fashion models protesting brands that have failed to commit to the agreement. And just recently, the Accord publicly disclosed information about the building safety of the 1,600 factories covered by the pact, bringing a measure of openness, transparency and accountability to an industry that has been shrouded in secrets.

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A safety effort proposed by North American retailers has been criticized for not being legally binding (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

While notable (mostly European) companies such as H&M, Inditex (Zara), and Primark have signed the Accord, there are still a number of North American retailers that have been unwilling to join the agreement. U.S. industry leaders such as Gap and Wal-Mart launched the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative in July, a comparatively weak agreement that promises safety upgrades, a hotline to report complaints, and regular inspections without any legal commitment. The need for a legally binding agreement is even more pressing when considering that the $42 million raised by the companies involved in the initiative to improve factory infrastructure is paltry compared to the actual estimated cost of necessary improvements, which is $300,000 to $500,000 per factory. The companies that reject the accord cite concerns that the provision for legal enforcement through arbitration makes them more ‘vulnerable’ to class-action suits. But two law professors writing for the Los Angeles Times disputed this claim, stating that the only legal liability for signatories would be to abide by its terms. They further argue that in fact, Gap and Wal-Mart sign legally enforceable agreements all the time in their global business dealings, and that their reluctance to join the Accord stems from its purpose, which would be to help protect worker’s rights rather than simply facilitate the buying and selling of apparel for corporate profit. As they put it, “underlying the American firms’ objections, it appears, is the fear of both financial and moral responsibility.”

Relatives of Rana Plaza disaster victims form a human chain in

Relatives of Rana Plaza victims demand compensation from Wal-Mart, which along with other U.S. retailers such as Gap, Sears, and Children’s Place, have refused to pay compensation (photo courtesy of Abir Abdullah/EPA).

Even more distressing is that very few companies have initiated concrete proposals to secure compensation for the victims of either the Tazreen or Rana Plaza factory fires. The UN Guidelines on Business and Human Rights dictates that companies must go beyond simply defending human rights and actually take action in remedying these tragedies. And an internationally-recognized formula that has been implemented in compensation plans after numerous other building safety incidents and fires has determined that brands and retailers are the most accountable for the failings that led to the disasters. Companies that had a direct or indirect relationship with the Rana Plaza factory or Tazreen are thus responsible for paying a full and fair compensation to the wounded workers and the families of those who were killed, so that they can access the medical care they need and continue to help support their families. This is especially important in Bangladesh, where the lack of a safety net such as social security, unemployment, or medical aid exacerbates the poverty wages and miserable living conditions for workers.  Just recently in September, the Rana Plaza Compensation Coordination Committee consisting of various apparel brands, the Bangladesh government, local and global trade unions and NGOs, met to develop a mechanism dubbed the “Arrangement” by which compensation for the families of the disaster could be determined. Although some progress has been made, with brands like Loblaw and Primark just recently committing to long-term relief, far too many have failed to join the Arrangement, leaving workers with little hope for palpable improvement in their dismal conditions.

As Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) stressed,

“When global apparel brands establish factory inspection programs that are confidential and voluntary, they communicate to Bangladeshi managers that they see no reason for workers to be informed of workplace risks. When global brands create programs that circumvent union initiatives – as many of the North American brands that have created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety are doing – they perpetuate the understanding within Bangladesh that solutions do not require workers’ having an independent voice and an equal place at the bargaining table. And when global brands don’t participate in the compensation for victims, they signal to Bangladesh’s leaders that it is okay to put workers lives at risk and walk away from the consequence.”

The time is now for multinational corporations to stop hiding behind deceptive and dishonest corporate social responsibility schemes that rely on corporate-sponsored monitoring and ‘codes of conduct’ plastered on their websites to mask worker abuse in their supply chains. If Gap Inc. is truly ‘committed’ to Bangladesh worker safety as they state on their CSR page, then why haven’t they made a commitment to renovate one factory? Why did they violate their own codes of conduct by sourcing out to a factory in which their workers are forced to labor over 100 hours a week and some pregnant women are illegally fired and denied paid maternity leave? If U.S. retailer Children’s Place is “deeply saddened” by the Rana Plaza factory fire as they expressed in a recent Facebook post, then why have they not agreed to compensate the victims, many of whom are orphans who lost their parents in the fire? Shouldn’t a clothing line that caters to children feel a certain degree of responsibility to the children on the other side of the supply chain?

Retailer Children's Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

Retailer Children’s Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

These tragedies have ultimately implicated Western buyers as complicit in the apparel industry’s dark side. However, contrary to what Nicholas Kristof and others may believe, what labor rights organizations are advocating for is not an end to this relationship between brands and the countries from which they source. In fact, the hope here is that by deepening their engagement, these companies could be the best hope for transformative change in the industry. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity stressed in a recent interview with The Nation:

“If consumers stop buying, that is like a boycott and a boycott doesn’t help us. Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want US consumers to say, “‘We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.'”

This is an appeal for all the apparel companies sourcing out of Bangladesh to not just join the Accord but to contribute to the process of compensation for the victims and their families, so that the nearly four million women who make our clothes can get a sustainable living wage and be treated with dignity. Furthermore, there needs to be a sustained conversation from brands about how to change the industry that goes beyond just apologies and knee-jerk CSR responses. In an industry where labor costs represent one to three percent of the retail price, the validity of a living wage needs to be on the table. Since, adjusting for inflation, clothing is far less expensive now than it was fifty years ago, prices need to be adjusted. Most importantly, companies need to invest in a long-term commitment with their factories instead of leaving when something goes wrong. Brands like WalMart need to acknowledge when they have lost control over their supply chain instead of displacing blame onto others.

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(photo courtesy of justmeans.com).

Finally, the media and consumers need to make a continuous and consistent call for change in the industry, so that the victims of these tragedies are not dismissed as merely collateral damage in an ‘unfortunate accident,’ but as fellow human beings who live, breathe, have children and go to work. Seeing, after all, isn’t always believing. Sometime we have to believe, so that we can see.

Bangladeshis show photos of missing relatives after building collapse

We must never forget these faces. (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Take Action:

Tweet! Want to take part in a twitter campaign to pressure retailers like Walmart, Children’s Place, The Gap, and Sears to sign the Accord and pay compensation to victims’ families? Here are some examples you can use:

Sign a petition! Demand that retailers end deathtraps and pay compensation to victims and their families. Here are the links for petitions to Gap, Wal-Mart, and The Children’s Place

Share: Both of these videos (here and here) interviewing survivors of the Rana Plaza fire are a must-watch.

Get involved! Check out United Students Against Sweatshops campaign to get universities to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. They have already had a few victories! Also check out the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights ForumJobs with Justice, United with Respect, and SumOfUs,

Get inspired: Read about Cambodian factory workers winning a settlement against Wal-Mart, how workers defied Wal-Mart this holiday season, and how university students successfully pressured Adidas to sign the Bangladesh Accord!

Want to learn how an apparel factory in the Dominican Republic is making a profit while paying its workers a living wage? Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this amazing company!

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