On the 24th of April, the People Tree Foundation hosted a panel discussion for Fashion Revolution Day. Together we said enough is enough and it’s time for change.

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April 24 2013 was a day that shook the fashion community and the general public as news unfolded that a nine story building housing garment factories collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh had collapsed. No one would have  imagined that the death toll would rise as high as 1133 people. As the bodies of workers were pulled from the collapsed remains of the factory, so too were garments carrying the labels of the very same brands that line our high streets. The Rana Plaza factory collapse was the final straw after a series of fatal garment factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Over the last three years, nearly 2000 people have died and 3000 people have been seriously injured these disasters.

To mark the first anniversary of the collapse, the People Tree Foundation joined with people in over fifty countries – from fashion designers and brands, to cotton farmers and factory workers – to participate in Fashion Revolution Day. Together we said enough is enough. The fashion industry must take into consideration the human rights of workers and the protection of the environment. People Tree proves that fashion can be done in a different way, that puts the worker and the environment central to everything it does. Fashion Revolution Day calls on fashion companies to clean up their supply chains and to be more transparent and responsible.

Fashion Revolution Day showed an immense act of solidarity with the Bangladeshi garment workers. Consumers are outraged that a year after the collapse, the injured and families of those who died in Rana Plaza have not been compensated properly. Families have been left destitute, children lost both their parents in the collapse, and many families lost numerous members of their family. Workers lost limbs and have been left wheelchair bound and unable to work. To read more about the impact on families, read our April edition of The Eco Edit.

People Tree Foundation invited Amirul Haque Amin, the President of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), to London to speak to journalists, work with other NGOs, and join the a panel discussion. Amirul gives a voice for the victims and families of the Rana Plaza collapse, and calls on us to change the industry. The NGWF is the largest trade union federation in the Bangladeshi garment sector. Together with Amirul, we invited Caryn Franklin, fashion commentator and activist, Lucy Siegle, journalist and writer on environmental issues, and John Hilary, Executive Director of War on Want an anti-poverty charity, to speak at the event. The discussion was chaired by People Tree’s Safia Minney. The speakers who have different perspectives on fashion explored the issues surrounding the problem of sweatshops in the garment industry today.
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The panel answered a series of difficult questions: what has changed in the last year? Who has the responsibility to ensure it never happens again? Why it is so hard for the Bangladeshi workers to demand their rights? Why as consumers are we so detached from the realities of working conditions in the garment industry? The discussion focused on the immense power of consumers to motivate change when we stand together and demand change.

Amirul described the issues facing garment workers: lack of education and knowledge of their rights, many workers are from very rural, marginalized areas and rely on sending wages home to their families in the villages as well as feed themselves. Joining a labour union in Bangladesh puts women under great risk of losing their job and the means to feed their families. The law is very much on the side of the factory owners, one third of whom are politicians.

“Garments is actually the biggest industrial sector now in Bangladesh, there are 5000 garment factories and 4 million workers are working in this sector, 85 % are women workers. This sector is actually powering 79% of our total export.” -Amirul Haque Amin

One of the major issues contributing to poor working conditions and poor wages is the extremely low cost of clothing today. Fashion companies and buyers are pushing factory owners to make garments at a cheaper and cheaper cost, but this should never come at a cost of worker safety. John Hilary spoke of how the price of women’s clothing dropped by an unbelievable 38% from the year 2000 to 2010:

“Workers should not have to face, the horrific choice of going to work and potentially losing their lives or staying away and having absolutely nothing to put on their kids food plates that evening.” John Hillary

“Fashion editors have been quite irresponsible in promoting fast fashion brands and never at the cost or notion that there is anything wrong with not paying the real cost of fashion.” – Safia Minney

Caryn Franklin spoke of the strong connection between the worker and the wearer, made all the more real by her recent trip with People Tree to visit survivors and families of the Rana Plaza victims. Caryn described how moved she was to hear the stories first hand:

“I think when you’re watching it on a TV screen, there’s a real level of protection, that you think your empathising but of course when you’re in the same room with that person, who’s telling you their story, it’s very very different.”

Caryn questioned the role of fashion versus the business of fashion, and the need to bring the worker and wearer closer together. The fashion industry is supposed to empower people, give them a strong sense of self-esteem, but instead the business of fashion portrays unattainable body images and lifestyles coupled with the violation of workers’ rights in their supply chains – altogether this has left an ugly mark on the fashion industry.

“We talked to a succession of people who were mourning the loss of loved one, not just one in their family, but up to three, that they had lost, not just loved ones they had lost, but their breadwinners so they were utterly devastated, their lives were really undone, and I think you can’t get a sense of that, when you’re watching that on a TV screen, no matter how hard you try, so that’s why I think it was important that I did feel it… we did feel really powerless. I mean it was a really grim experience.” Caryn Franklin

Watch the 8 minute film about Safia and Caryn’s journey to Bangladesh to meet the survivors and the victims families.

Underlying this Fashion Revolution Day was a sense of injustice and anger that a year on from the collapse, brands had not taken full responsibility to compensate the victims.

Lucy Siegle voiced the difficulties of balanced journalism in the face of such obvious malpractice, and frustration that despite an international committee headed by the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation overseeing the compensation fund for Rana Plaza victims, many of the brands had not paid. The ILO has stated that at least $40 million is needed but so far only on $17 million has actually been pledged.

“I do think it’s a disgrace at this juncture we can’t say that the compensation pot for $40 million dollars is full, because it’s not, I mean at best guesstimate we’ve got $15 million dollars.” Lucy Siegle, Journalist

At the end of the evening, we were left with hope and a real sense that consumer solidarity here in the UK actually can help Bangladeshi workers improve working conditions and increase wages. John Hilary very powerfully reminded us that in the last year 150 brands have signed up to the Bangladesh Accord. This is a legally binding agreement between brands promoted by NGO’s and labour unions to improve factory safety, which was started in 2005. The campaign gained momentum in 2013 because 1 million people around the world signed a petition that said enough is enough. We need to keep the pressure up to ensure brands pay full compensation to the families and injured of Rana Plaza. Change can happen.

He also spoke of the Role of the British government in ensuring British brands out sourcing labour respect human rights:

“We also have to recognise that our government has a responsibility to ensure that all British companies wherever they’re sourcing from or operating in the world, they have to respect basic human rights, and workers’ rights and everybody who produces the goods that we enjoy, I think that’s absolutely clear.”

“We should never underestimate how powerful people coming together can be, that’s what drove the brands to sign up to the Bangladesh Safety Accord … The response of ordinary people, in this country and around the world, to the disaster a year ago today has been absolutely fantastic. We see that out pouring of anger of outrage that you can continue to have this sort of horrific, horrific disaster in the 21st century, that’s what has powered change.” John Hilary, War On Want

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Safia started her Fashion Revolution Day by joining the protests at Gap and United Colors of Benetton, two brands that have not signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord. Throughout the panel discussion, Safia reiterated the need for continuing public pressure on brands and on the government:

“$40 million is the estimate by the ILO convention for the compensation required of which $17 million has now been paid or committed, so we’re not even half way a year after, so keeping up the pressure now is vitally important. I hope you will sign the War on Want petition.”

Fashion Revolution Day 2014 may be over but the movement and campaign for justice will continue.

The 24th of April will be a day set aside to remember all those who died unnecessarily and to continue the push for justice and improved rights of garment workers all over the world. Please join us in our call to fully compensate the victims of Rana Plaza, and participate in the Fashion Revolution Campaign. Fair Trade fashion shows that people can work in dignity and consumers can love to know the stories behind the products they buy.

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