Fast Fashion: An Inside Look on Sweatshop Labor

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Ramsdell of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative at the CU Denver Business School.

Last Tuesday, I went to the CU Denver Business School to attend a discussion about fast fashion and sweatshop labor. Our panelists were Benjamin Powell, an economics professor at Texas Tech and author of “Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy,” and Joris Oldenziel, a Fire and Building Safety director of the Accord in Bangladesh. The conversation spurred some disagreements, but in the end is all about improving the conditions for sweatshop workers.

What is a sweatshop? By definition, it’s an industrial textile factory that:

  • pays workers low wages for long unpredictable hours
  • mistreats their workers (verbal abuse)
  • has unhealthy or oppressive work environments (no meal or bathroom breaks)
  • violates the few labor laws the country has

On top of this list is the physical impact of unregulated factory practices. Joris says in Bangladesh, the second largest producer of garments in the world, there is a lax building code and factories would build up, constructing a floor on top of an existing floor, to make more room for workers. Factories would also knock foundation walls out to expand their space, more or less resulting in a death trap for these workers.

In 2013, the workers in Rana Plaza refused to enter because they felt the building was unsound. However they were forced to re-enter or else lose their jobs. In the end, 1100 people died, many more were injured. Among the rubble, the garments that were pulled out seemed very familiar: Walmart, H&M, Calvin Klein, to name a few. Other factory incidents were documented at Spectrum, Garib + Garib, That’s It, and Tazreen in Bangladesh.

In response, The Accord was created on May 15, 2013. The Accord is a legally binding agreement to hold brands, retailers, unions, and factories all accountable to prevent accidents like this in the future. It requires safety inspections of at least 1600 factories in Bangladesh, conducts reports for transparency purposes, works with brands to make sure changes are financially feasible, and allows workers to refuse to work. There are 200 brands involved, such as United Colors of Benetton, PVH, Target, American Eagle, and NGOs. Fifty percent of the brands involved manufacture RMGs (ready made garments that consumers buy).  

Joris says the fire and electrical factory inspections have greatly reduced the number of factory incidents. Some problems within the factories were wall and foundation cracks, blocked exits and aisles (which was the reason for the Tazreen collapse), electrical wiring, no management of garment weight, and collapsible gates. The Accord has also implemented informational employee meetings with booklets in their language on safety and details about the Accord. Since 2013, Joris says there’s been 2,000 factory inspections, 25,000 follow-ups, 150,000 hazards eliminated, and 91 percent of remediation.

The Accord would like to transition its role to the government, but there are conflicts of interest as the government of Bangladesh is against it. (Their government officials are also factory owners… imagine that.) Joris says they appealed to court earlier this month (February 18), so there is more to follow on the Accord in the future.

Ben Powell of Texas Tech provided a logical voice to the conversation and brought up how to improve the condition of sweatshops: through wage determination and total compensation. If these factories are indeed improving working conditions, which would be a more attractive option for workers, competing businesses who aren’t in The Accord could easily take workers with a higher wage.

“Don’t jeopardize the least bad alternative in comparison to other options,” says Ben. “You have to give them more or better work options or it will push them into worse alternatives.” Bangladesh, overall, will have to create high standards for work environments, better wages, and more developed labor laws that will prevent garment workers from leaving their job for the next “not as bad” opportunity.

Joris added that brands have to be held accountable as well, not just the government or factories, and have the responsibility to make sure that it is a standard to regulate these factories.

The discussion was so eye-opening to me as our business is constantly learning about how to be a sustainable fashion collective. As much as I am for USA-made apparel, I do fully support the ethical decisions being made to create safer work environments and better wages for factories overseas. There is a market and high demand for ethically created clothing. I think about the workers, people who are just trying to make a living and support a family, who work so hard just so we can wear the hottest new fashion styles. They deserve to go to work without fearing for their lives. I hope by educating my audience about all the nuances of fast fashion, we can all be more conscious consumers in the future.

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