'Imagination will take you everywhere'
In three days time it will be the anniversary of one of the 21st Century’s most horrific structural disasters: the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which resulted in the deaths of 1,133 garment workers. A year on from the catastrophe, the site is still dormant; the usual hustle and bustle of people replaced with an eerily empty scene – a scar in the urban landscape of Savar, a constant reminder of the people lost forever. Furthermore, a reminder of the suffering and sacrifice garment workers endure to meet the western world’s fierce demand for cheap fashion.
Of course we as highly moral human beings must find someone to blame for this devastating event. So is it the fault of Sohel Rana, the factory owner who forced workers to continue working despite the huge cracks in the walls? Or should we blame the Bangladesh government for not being more aware of such hazardous working conditions? Or is it the fault of the fashion companies for not conducting vigilant checks on their suppliers’ factories? Perhaps we should accuse the superficial fashion industry for creating the ‘fast fashion’ cycle, in which the quick reproduction of catwalk trends makes its way to high-street stores via the handiwork of sweatshop labour? Or just maybe the fault is all ours. We are the consumers – the ordinary people who spend, spend, spend on clothes that are low cost and on-trend. We are the ones who started this vicious cycle of demand. I’m the first to admit that my favourite stores are the ones that have been linked to sweatshops with poor working conditions: H&M, Topshop, Zara. Just the other day I bought a pair of H&M black jeans for £7.99 – I couldn’t believe it – what a bargain! And then I looked at the label and discovered it had been made in Bangladesh, probably in a workshop similar to the horrendous ones shown in the ITV documentary Fashion Factories Undercover, in which the workers are underage girls who are verbally and physically abused, and the fire escapes are locked. This filled me with guilt. I want the clothes I wear to be made lovingly by happy workers who are treated well and paid a fair wage. Instead most of our clothes are drenched in blood.
But how can we make a difference to the lives of workers on the other side of the planet? As consumers we hold a large degree of power – it is us that the high-street stores cater to, so just simply showing you care where and who makes your clothes is vital. Fashion Revolution Day is being held on 24th April to mark the anniversary of the collapse, as well as raise awareness of the plight of garment workers. It has been created by the environmental journalist, Lucy Siegel and the green carpet goddess, Livia Firth, both of whom are joining forces with fashionistas around the globe to wear their clothes inside out; thus proudly displaying the label and the origin of where the garment was made. This recognition of where your clothes were ‘born’ is crucial in paving the way to safer working conditions for garment workers.
Fortunately the Rana Plaza disaster has had a few positive impacts; not only has it shone a light on the life of garment workers in developing countries, but it has helped to heap pressure on the Bangladesh government to increase the minimum wage for garment workers. Despite this, £42.00 a month seems a miniscule amount to keep mouths fed and a roof over a family’s head. There has also been a compensation fund set up for the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, in which fashion brands linked to the factory will contribute (Primark has already given £7 million), as well as a legally binding factory safety deal, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which numerous other clothing companies have signed up to (including Arcadia, the owner of Topshop). This deal will employ engineers to check the infrastructure of over 1,600 factories in the country. This all sounds promising, however I can’t help but think that it has come too late.
In a few weeks time when the dust has settled on the one year anniversary, the Rana Plaza factory will be a distant memory for many westerners. Instead people will be planning their next shopping spree, blowing their wages on ASOS, or having a Primark splurge. However now whenever I contemplate buying a ridiculously cheap piece of clothing there is an image that will always burn at the back of my mind: a boy and girl entwined in an embrace within the rubble, dust sprinkled over their bodies, a teardrop of blood runs down the cheek of the boy. Taslima Akhter’s powerful photograph has touched the world; it is heart-wrenching and has come to symbolises the anguish of a nation.
So lets hope high-street stores hear our demands and listen to their consciences; how many more thousands have to die for a bargain?
For my Final Major Project I will be creating a protest campaign to raise awareness of the negative impacts of the fashion industry – particularly the suffering of garment workers. Check out my progress on my art blog, The Scrapbook.