On an April day in 2013, news sources began reporting that an eight-storey garment factory building in Bangladesh had collapsed in what has been called the world’s worst garment factory disaster. Over 1,100 people died and another 2,500 were injured in the Rana Plaza catastrophe, with corruption and graft cited as the root cause. Has the ready-made garment industry been cleaned up since then, or can we expect more deadly consequences?
An imbalanced tug of war and powerless workers
The fast fashion or ready-made Garment industry, providing low-cost clothing options to look on-trend, is based on a carefully choreographed and quick-moving global supply chain. On one end of this chain stand big brands, and on the other, workers – with suppliers lying between them. Because there are multiple suppliers competing with one another and only a limited number of brands, the big names in fashion often have significant negotiating power.
With big brands dictating pricing and payment terms, along with determining how profits are made and distributed along the supply chain, suppliers are left with little to pay workers living wages, create a safe working environment or provide assistance upon termination.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the problem. Brands are known to be leveraging suppliers’ desperation as a bargaining chip to demand even deeper price discounts. Suppliers report offering rates lower than production costs to keep their businesses alive. Retroactively cancelled orders and brands demanding payment schedules that cater to their whims exacerbates this situation. All of this has threatened the viability of suppliers and has caused widespread dismissal and poor treatment of workers in an attempt by suppliers to cut costs.
It also concerning that garment workers – who are mostly women and girls – face more than just underpayment and strenuous working conditions. Workplace abuses often include sexual harassment and sextortion.
Deadly effects have been seen before
And it does not stop there. Corruption contributing to poor enforcement of safety regulations has caused deadly disasters in the sector.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh has been the most infamous case. The spokesperson for one major brand summed it up this way: “you have these high-rise factories and the added corruption of allowing these factories to be built when they should not be”. Reports show that Rana Plaza was built on unsuitable land, construction rules were flouted, corners were cut in procuring building materials, and officials took bribes to look the other way. Corruption created the perfect storm for the tragedy to take place.
Has fast fashion ironed out its problems?
Ten years since the Rana Plaza disaster, a lot has been done to ensure better safety conditions for garment workers. Most European retailers signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety which has created real change by making factories safer. A new International Accord negotiated between brands and workers’ unions in 2021 continues the work in Bangladesh and extends it to other countries.
While building safety has improved since the tragedy in 2013, the overall structure of the global supply chain, with its inherent power imbalance, was left untouched. On the Rana Plaza factory floor, pressure to deliver cheap products quickly created a situation where workers who were there at the time of the accident were forced to keep on working despite cracks appearing in the building.
The Rana Plaza case reveals what still goes on in factories catering to fast fashion around the world. Competitive pressure, difficult working conditions and laxity in safety are all a result of inherent power imbalances fuelling corruption.
The question is, do we fix the cracks when we see them – or wait for the whole thing to come crashing down?
What can be done?
As brands continue to base their supply chains in countries with low wages and weak social protections, it is up to both retailing and host governments to address the intertwined phenomenon of corruption and human rights abuses in the sector. This involves improving existing laws, protecting informal workers, establishing effective whistleblowing and grievance mechanisms, providing labour safety nets – especially in the context of the pandemic – and empowering the backbone of the industry: women.
Global North economies, which house the largest brands, should ensure that their companies not only meet national and international labour standards, but also do not engage in corruption while doing business in other countries, mostly in the Global South. Civil society initiatives such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and Transparency International chapters in apparel manufacturing hubs such as Bangladesh Cambodia and Indonesia are working towards a fairer ready-made garment industry.
Interestingly, the biggest customers of fast fashion are people with substantial disposable incomes, who can wield considerable power by demanding ethically made products. If you are among them, ask the brand behind your clothes what they are doing to make the industry fairer and safer for all.
Are you interested in learning more about corruption in specific countries and sectors? Check out our Anti-Corruption Knowledge Hub where corruption experts answer your questions.
*The title of this article was updated on 25 April 2023 to correct the years of the anniversary.