Just over a year ago, on 24 April 2013, more than 1,100 people were killed and 2,500 injured in the collapse of a garment factory at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. The victims were supplying the clothes that make their way onto our high street and which you and I wear daily without a second thought. The shock which reverberated around the world from the RanaPlaza catastrophe was genuine, but the sad truth is that the disaster revealed only the tip of an iceberg of horrific conditions and poverty pay for garment workers, not only in Bangladesh but across numerous countries.
The average monthly wage for a Bangladeshi garment worker is barely £50, yet they are increasingly being undercut by other nations where the pay is even lower, such as Cambodia or Laos. Child labour remains rife, with an ITV documentary earlier this year showing children as young as 13 being forced to work 11-hour days in order to produce clothes for UK retailers.
But despite all this, there has been a small glimmer of hope. The pressure from consumers following the disaster helped to change things a little bit for the better. Last year, more than 100 clothing retailers, including most of Britain’s leading high street brands, signed up to an Accord on fire and building safety in Bangladesh. This introduced statutory safety inspections of garment factories, funds to help factory owners make their buildings safe to work in, and gave workers the right to refuse to work in an unsafe building, without loss of pay. Bangladesh has also seen a sizeable increase in its minimum wage agreed. Without concerted pressure from consumers, alongside governments and international NGOs, it is unlikely that anything like as many retailers would have signed up to the Accord.
Having seen what consumer power can do, it is surely right to continue to push for further improvements in working conditions in the clothing sector, both in Bangladesh and beyond.
There are improvements on the way for workers around the world, but there’s a long way still to go. And we must not allow the garment industry to simply export those problems to other countries. Manufacturing clothes can provide valuable, secure employment for hundreds of thousands of people, both at home and in some of the world’s poorest countries. But there is no reason why that has to mean going to work in unsafe factories, the exploitation of children or the paying of poverty wages.
I will be supporting @fash_rev. As you can see, on Fashion Revolution Day, I turned my clothes inside and showed public support for the cause. Support the cause by going to fashionrevolution.org or getting in touch with me at www.facebook.com/bilal.cwg, @bilalmahmood13.
Bilal Mahmood is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green (the seat currently held by Iain Duncan Smith). He is a lawyer and a campaigner social mobility for over ten years. He was born in Woodford Green and raised in Walthamstow, working as treasurer of the CLP there.