On the 24th of April 2013 more than three and a half thousand people were injured or lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building.
For contrast, the 9-11 attacks on New Yorks Twin Towers, one of the most tragic moments in modern history that left the world shell-shocked, saw an aftermath death toll of nearly three thousand. While both Rana plaza and the 9-11 involved the collapse of buildings and the loss of lives one huge difference between the two events highlighted by the ‘Clothes To Die For’ documentary that aired on ABC three days ago (now available to Australian residents on iview) is that garment workers in the Rana Plaza building knew that the structure could collapse at any moment but were forced to go to work regardless of the dangers. Both the collapse of the Twin Towers and the Rana Plaza building resulted in sad and senseless deaths and injuries, but the most shockingly hard to swallow part is that Rana Plaza fatalities were completely avoidable. There were warning signs! People were put in harms way and subsequently died for the sake of fast fashion profits.
‘Clothes to Die For’ is a difficult but important watch.
As an ‘on ground’ account of the lead up to the collapse of Rana Plaza, ‘Clothes to Die For’ pieces together a very humanistic look at the way that the disaster unfolded. Starting with the foundations of how the garment industry began in Bangladesh, to the development of Dhaka as the hub of the industry and a place that offered villagers the opportunity to make money for themselves and their families, the story of the Rana plaza building and the man behind it’s construction, and finally working to the days and moments before the disaster. Hearing the heartfelt personal accounts of the victims of the tragedy really puts a human face to the garment industry. The beginning of the documentary introduces each garment worker as they share the narrative of how they became involved in the industry and paints a very relatable picture for the viewer. These people are just like us. They are excited and nervous about their move from village homes to the city. When their first pay-cheque arrives they celebrate by buying gifts for their family and treats for themselves. The girls dream of lives of opportunity, literacy, and city living, with the possibility to support themselves and their families and get married. Heck… they even shop for clothes just like we do (just not the western ones, the girls note how puzzled they are by who would wear most of the items they manufacture)!
It is hard to watch effects of the Rana Plazas ‘recipe for disaster’ unfold on these innocent factory workers, as girls that had gone from asking their mothers to Pray for them the night before the collapse, to retelling tales of risking their lives for £3.80 and ultimately having to face decisions, and conditions that no-one should be forced to endure. While all accounts of the experience of the collapse are equally as terrifying the plight of Rojina Begum, who had actually said to her sister that they had made a mistake coming to work as soon as she entered the building on the faithful day, is by far the most harrowing. After the collapse she was trapped for with rods, beams and machines on her right arm with a sore head and blood coming out of her ear, surrounding by screaming people and the blood of others. On day three of rescue efforts she was discovered alive, and due to access issues was forced to amputate her own arm, only finding the strength to do so out of a desire to find her sister. Her sister was identified later from DNA samples linked to an unnamed grave.
While the documentary is probably the most difficult fashion related viewing on offer it is an unbiased and powerful account of the social impacts of fast fashion. Anyone who watches it will never EVER look at a cheap t-shirt the same way again.
Fast Facts from a documentary about the social impact of Fast Fashion
- We now buy three times as many clothes as we did 30 years ago
- The Collapse of Rana Plaza is one of the worst industrial disasters of the 21st century
- The garment industry is the biggest earner of Bangladesh’s 150 Million strong population
- The industry accounts for almost 80% of the countries exports
- Bangladesh’s garment industry was set up in 1979 by Noorul Quader, a former civil servant with the ideal of it being an economic backbone for the nation.
- Wages for garment workers pre-collapse were around five pounds per week.
- The garment industry trade is worth around 15 billion pounds per year.
- Sohel Rana, a powerful, brash and forceful business man who built his empire by selling of land for development was the man behind the development of the Rana Plaza. He was well connected to politicians and controlled the youth wing of Bangladesh’s ruling party. His party protected him and intimidated rivals and is reported to have inspired fear in factory workers.
- The Rana Plaza was opened in 2009 that provided up to 5000 new jobs for garment workers. At the time of opening there was a boom in clothing exports as they were growing by more than 20% per year. This boom resulted in adding three extra floors to the Rana Plaza building and the installation of heavy generators in the upper levels.
- The companies in Rana Plaza were reported to be making clothing for more than 20 western companies.
- Child labour and excessive hours were banned but with so many different buyers it is suggested that it could be easy for the suppliers to cheat on these rules. One of the women interviewed, Shirin Akter Kajol admits to being underaged when she first started working at Rana Plaza saying that she would be hid in the toilet when buyers visited the factory. Another worker, Rojina Begum reports being kept at work until midnight and returning home to sleep at 2am only to be woken up to be back at work again at 5am.
- Pressure to meet orders for fast fashion on time and on budget are the reason that so many corners are cut in the manufacturing process.
- 100 workers were killed in a factory fire at the Tazreen Factory as there were not fire escapes and some exits were locked. This tragedy is the reason that so many people were concerned when the crack appeared in the Rana Plaza building.
- Workers at Rana Plaza were expected to produce around 100-120 units per hour.
- On the week of the collapse the workers were busy making garments for shipment for Primark, Store Twenty One, and Loblaw
- The day before the collapse cracks had appeared in a pillar and the roof of the third floor of the building and managers and workers were concerned that the structure would collapse. Work was halted until engineers had checked the structure.
- Journalist Nazmul Huda was called by garment workers to come to the scene and he filmed the cracked pillar before being kicked out by Rana’s people. Rana (seemingly drunk at the time) eventually agreed to an interview with Nazmul and stated that there was nothing wrong with the pillar and that there was just some plaster coming off. Despite pleas from Rana, Huda reported on the damage in the building on national television, and another newspaper article by another journalist published the day of the event.
- Ignoring the news warnings and the fact the bank on the ground floor being closed due to the building being unsafe, garment factory workers were told they were to return to work as per usual on the day of the collapse. Reluctant garment workers were told by factory managers that the building will not collapse due to one cracked pillar and that engineers have guaranteed it for 100 years. Those who were still resisting were told that their salaries for the remainder of the month will be withheld if they didn’t go to work.
- At 8.45 am a loud noise was reported, the lights went out and the generators kicked in vibrating the structure and in 90 seconds the building had collapsed trapping thousands of people inside the debris.
- As emergency services couldn’t cope with the scale of the collapse many of the resumes were carried out by volunteers who were asked to perform unthinkable acts (like Monir who was asked to perform an amputation on a trapped survivors ankle) in order to free victims.
- The heat of mid summer forced survivors trapped for hours or days to drink their own blood or urine to quench their thirst.
- The hunt for survivors and bodies continued for three weeks after the collapse
- After the collapse garment factory workers rioted and world media focus was on the Bangladesh fashion industry. This resulted in a nation wide hunt for Rana who was found four days later attempting to cross the border to India. Since the collapse most western companies have pleaded to inspect factories and the garment worker wage has doubled (to £40 per month, one of the lowest in the world).
- Some retailers that used the factory offered compensation to the workers and the families of the workers. However, the families of workers who went missing are not entitled to any compensation due to a lack of ‘proof’ that the family member went missing as a result of the faculty collapse.
- A year after the collapse they were still finding human remains in the blood soaked clothing and debris at the Rana Plaza site.
- Fears are that demands for increased per unit prices from buyers will result in international buyers taking their manufacturing to a cheaper country. Putting millions of workers, women in particular, out of work.
- There is optimism for the future of the garment industry in Bangladesh as a way forward to support the economic growth of one of the poorest countries in the world.
- In the year following the collapse garment exports from Bangladesh increased by 16%
What can I do?
Even though more than two years have passed since the tragic day there are still social injustices across the globe in the garment manufacturing industry. Being a conscious consumer is a great start to changing the way the global materials economy operates. While boycotting ‘Made in Bangladesh’ items may seems like a good way to get your point across to the manufacturers this can result in millions of people out of work. An initiative that was developed as a result of the Rana Plaza collapse is the ‘Fashion Revolution‘ a global movement to get people asking companies ‘who made my clothes’? You can read more about Sustainability in Styles efforts to find out ‘who made my clothes’ here and here (with two out of three companies asked responding to enquiries and resources for finding ethical labels at the second link)
You can also check out the Clean Clothes Campaign for Rana Plaza. This is a great resource for those wanting to find out more and take action to get justice for the survivors and the families of the victims of Rana Plaza.
If you are keen to hear more stories from those working the Frontline of the materials good economy this book is an interesting and eye opening read.
Hope that you get the opportunity to watch this documentary and if you feel like you need to talk about it and/or need support feel free to comment here or send an email through the contact page.