Breaking the silence of the brands

Margianta S. J. D.

Seven years ago, I bought a shirt. It was a grey shirt with tiny square patterns. I bought it in the center of Utrecht during my family visit. I hurried back home on my bicycle and showed my Mom what I have bought. It was a good bargain with great discount, and I praised my successful effort to buy the €3 shirt. I asked my Mom to fix the loose buttons on my new shirt, but my Mom was just standing still. Then she said “Maybe your loose buttons were sewed by children. Some little girls who works day and night, got tired by overwhelming targets, hence the loose buttons.”

I was startled and let it sink for a while in my head. I took a closer look at the tag on my new shirt. It says “Made in Bangladesh.” The next second I opened up a browser tab and read many news and articles about the worrisome situation of labors in Bangladesh. The information from the half an hour browsing then forever changed my life. Two years ago, The True Cost documentary was released and it reaffirmed my concern about fast fashion phenomenon in Bangladesh and other developing countries, including my own country Indonesia.

Despite of the recent global currency crisis, it seems like the shopping spirit of the middle and upper classes of Indonesian citizens in general is simply unaffected. We see it from the never-ending crowd of customers in international brand apparel stores all over the Malls. The reason why a lot of middle and upper class citizens prefer to shop in these ‘branded stores’ are not only because they see these brands to be more prestigious, but also because the items are considered cheap. But if we take a deeper look behind those cheap and prestigious branded clothes, we will be startled by the fact that there are strong indications of modern slavery in their supply chains.

Before they are distributed to the fancy shops all over the Malls, these branded items are mainly being manufactured in developing countries. If we peek inside the tag of these clothes, we can easily tell the name of many developing countries such as China, Thailand, Cambodia, and even Indonesia. Among all of these countries, during the last decade, one of the most productive ones to manufacture garment products for many international brands is Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s well-earned reputation in the garment industries is very statistically palpable. In 2012, there were more than 3 million women and men who knitted, dyed, washed, sewed, finished, ironed, packaged, and shipped close to $20 billion worth of clothes for various international brands all around the world. [1] These figures tend to increase faster and grow larger every year, making Bangladesh one of the developing world’s biggest MDG success stories. [2] With all of its well-renowned achievements, Bangladesh was able to increase the economic productivity of its people. Even Bangladesh’s garment factories ‘have been a success story in terms of women’s empowerment’, according to a UNDP official in Dhaka. [3]

Despite all of the tremendous garment success, the low labor wage in the Bangladeshi garment industries are still a matter to be concerned. Bangladesh has a dense population, with the number of at or below working age is among the highest in the world, with close to 70 percent of Bangladesh’s 150 million people are under the age of 35. [4] This demographic situation allowed Bangladesh to be privileged with a “demographic dividend”, whereas the combination of a low cost of living and high population density will be resulting very low labor costs for the industries. [5]

This is why many international brand companies are attracted to invest their garment products in Bangladesh. The garment success of Bangladesh is not only responsible for its economic growth, but it is also responsible for the low labor cost standards that is being implemented in factories all over the country. The lower the labor costs get, the lower insurance and welfare that the Bangladeshi labors will attain.

Ever since the Rana Plaza incident occurred in April 2013, the low labor costs in Bangladesh became a horrendous international issue more than it ever did before. More than 1.100 labors died when the Rana Plaza building collapsed. [6] Eighty percent of the labors were young women, from 18 until 20 years old. During their workdays in Rana Plaza, every labor’s standard shift was 13 to 14 ½ hours, from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 or 10:30 p.m., with total of 90 to 100 hours a week with just two days off a month. Some ‘young helpers’ earned 12 cents an hour, while the so-called ‘junior operators’ got 22 cents an hour, approximately $10 a week, and senior sewers received 24 cents an hour and approximately $12 a week. [7]

These unreasonable wage standards and working hours were also being worsened by the ignorance from the government, the factory owner, and the international brand companies after the incident. Many labors and their families are still demonstrating at the site of the Rana Plaza incident, demanding justice and full compensation from the companies that were ordering clothes from the garment factories in Rana Plaza. Five factories which was located in the Rana Plaza was known for producing clothes for some US, Canadian, and European international brands.

In March 2015, Kalpona Akter, one of the labor leaders in Bangladesh, has visited 16 American college campuses for gathering supports in order to pressure two major international brands – The Children’s Place and Benetton – to improve their apparel industry safety in Bangladesh and to compensate for victims of the Rana Plaza incident. [8] This demand was especially aimed towards The Children’s Place, as it was the major customer of Rana Plaza factories before it collapsed. Up until now, The Children’s Place has only donated $2.500.000 from the $8.000.000 that is being demanded by Akter and the other Rana Plaza victims in Bangladesh.

The Children’s Place and Benetton were actually only two of the total 31 international brand companies that were allegedly used to supply their garment products from factories in Rana Plaza. Some companies claimed that they have paid some amount of compensation for this incident, some others do not. Some chose to stay silent, and denied their involvement in this incident. On the other hand, the labors of Rana Plaza are still waiting for their justice to be served.

The labor welfare issues in Bangladesh is only one example of many other similar cases in many other developing countries. There could be more cases like Rana Plaza in the future, especially in a country full of garment industry investment like Indonesia. Indonesia’s partake in many trade agreement like Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is expected to bring even more investment in Indonesia, feeding the emerging thrive of Indonesia’s economic growth under the rapid investment-seeking moves of President Joko Widodo.

On the other hand, we can only hope that the currently proliferating investments in Indonesia and around the globe will also acknowledge the importance of ensuring the safety and the welfare of the labors. If there is any incident in a foreseeable future similar to the one happened in Rana Plaza, Indonesian government must be committed to hold the companies accountable in for neglecting the safety and welfare of its labors. One of the simplest thing that we can do to prevent these labor injustice from happening is to have a thorough background check on any products, particularly branded apparels that we are about to buy.

We do have the freedom to choose what to wear as a way to express ourselves, but we must not take our freedom for granted. We must wear our clothes as well as we wear our principles. When we are about to encounter another branded clothes next time, we have to be more aware of the labor’s rights and conditions behind those brands.

By building a better awareness towards the supply chains of the products we buy, and adjusting our power as consumers with our knowledge about indications of modern slavery in many supply we might break the silence of the brands. Hopefully one day, all brands break their apathy silence, therefore changing their course of business from treating labors merely as numbers and variables on a profit report, into a more humanizing approach by upholding the values of freedom, dignity and welfare for all.

[1] Edward Bearnot, World Policy: Bangladesh; A Labor Paradox. (2013)

[2] development-goals

[3] development-goals

[4] Edward Bearnot, loc.cit.

[5] Edward Bearnot, loc.cit.

[6] factory-collapse-owner-held

[7] Ibid.

[8] kalpona-akter- arrested-rana-plaza-new-jersey

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