Bangladeshi Worker Rights and The Fast Fashion Appetite

by: Abigail Doan

April 17, 2012

Whether you are a fast fashion junkie or a slow fashion gourmand, there is no disputing that today’s fashion tragedies are not just about outrageous celebrity tastes or luxury brand designers with major burnout, but rather the crimes committed against the enslaved individuals who make our clothes under abysmal conditions. With last week’s announcement in the New York Times about the torture and murder of Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi labor rights activist and former apparel worker, the garment production crisis was heightened like never before with global outreach efforts and activism seeming to be a moot point.

As the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) immediately shared with its international community,

Aminul Islam worked for the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) and the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF). Repression against trade unionists and labour rights activists in Bangladesh is a serious problem –  worker protests are often met with violence. CCC is calling for the Bangladeshi authorities to launch an immediate and impartial investigation into the killing and for them to work tirelessly to bring the perpetrators to justice. We are also calling on supporters worldwide, including EU missions and other organizations to generate similar pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities in order to stop the culture of impunity that has led to this tragic murder.”
Garment workers in Bangladesh (image via Global Labor Rights)
Garment workers in Bangladesh (image via Global Labor Rights)

The loss of an outspoken individual like Aminul Islam is surely meant to strike fear into the hands and hearts of garment workers who produce goods for Western labels like Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger and H&M. The ultimate tragedy exists in the apparent lack of meaningful involvement and unwillingness to issue statements after an event like this, particularly when a company like H&M has made a “conscious” decision to promote itself as an “ethical” fast fashion alternative (an oxymoron to some). Both Walmart and Tommy Hilfiger came forward to provide written statements via e-mail following the announcement of Aminul Islam’s brutal death, but H&M refused comment and did not seize the opportunity to highlight their commitment to improving abusive conditions for Bangladeshi workers.

Ironically, the month of April was also a time when H&M released their sustainability report – which includes impressive initiatives to reduce water consumption, donate garments to charities, employee more women in their work force, increase their use of organic cotton, keep overall standards in check, as well as educating Bangladeshi workers (442,000 since 2008 to be exact) about their rights and safe conditions. A bold mission statement like this coupled with net quarterly profits of $412m. seems to position H&M as the ideal label to create significant change in the fast fashion arena. Whether ethical fashion can be produced and regulated in such mass volume, though, it still up for review. Lucy Siegle, author of ‘To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?’ examines this very topic in her recent article for The Guardian’s ethical business column. 
H&M and sustainable fashion
H&M Conscious Collection 2012

One glaring glitch in all of this goodness appears to be the lack of open support that global brands are providing for labor leaders like Aminul Islam, who received repeated threats and beatings in his community since June 2010. As the New York Times emphasized, “Labor leaders have become targets around the world. Human Rights Watch says that more than 2,880 labor leaders have been murdered in Colombia since 1986. Labor unions in the United States pointed to those murders as a reason to block any trade deal with Colombia, but Congress nevertheless ratified a trade pact with Colombia last October.”

Which leaves us to wonder whether the business of fashion is now also about the local turncoats who stand to profit from the increased presence of the international business agents of change? The implementation of eco-fibers and sustainable methods are significant and laudable developments on the fashion frontier, but not for workers who are still endangered by Dhaka’s factory fires as well as threats to union organizers who understand the moral fiber of what is tragically unfolding all around them.
Bangladeshi worker protests and street fires in 2012  (photo by Andrew Biraj)
Bangladeshi worker protests and street fires in 2012 (photo by Andrew Biraj/Reuters via The New York Times)

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