Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Foregoing Protections in the Pursuit of Profits: Garment Workers, Fashion Models, and the Industry that Violates their Rights

By Gabriella JohnstonPublished October 24, 2014

Labor rights issues are becoming increasingly difficult to address as globalization and the expansion of international markets continues to complicate the way that goods are produced. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 highlights these issues and proves that organizing workers along industry-specific supply chains is the key to ensuring that the rights of workers around the world are protected.
By Gabriella Johnston, 10/24/14

In April 2013 the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh collapsed, becoming the site of the deadliest tragedy in the history of the fashion industry and killing over 1,100 garment workers while injuring an additional 2,500. This was but one of a series of industrial accidents in Bangladesh's garment industry—one of the biggest exporters of clothes to the United States and Europe because of its low wages.  This tragedy and others emphasize the blatant disregard that fashion companies have for garment workers overseas, especially in Bangladesh's $20 million per year garment industry. These workers, many of them women and children, toil in highly unsafe working conditions and live in poverty, making the minimum wage of about $68 a month (an 80% increase that still leaves Bangladesh with the lowest minimum wage in the world).  

After the collapse, the International Labor Organization backed the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund, established to aid the victims and families of those affected by the tragedy. However, fashion companies' reluctance to offer compensation has been astounding. The Rana Plaza Arrangement estimated that the fund would need to collect $40 million to cover the expected claims. As of August 2014, over a year after the collapse, the fund is not even half full. The unfilled Rana Plaza compensation fund raises the question, why have the fashion brands implicated still not been held accountable?      

This lack of accountability stems from a deeper problem arising from the mismanagement of labor issues in conjunction with increasing globalization. A company's workforce is no longer limited to the citizens' of the country in which it is based; its manufacturing is no longer confined by its national borders. For these reasons and others, the swift expansion of international markets has outpaced the progression of workforce protections. These labor rights issues exist all along industry supply chains, although unfortunately, workers at different points in these supply chains often don't recognize the similarity of their struggles. The irony is that in an increasingly globalized world we rarely perceive the presence of a global workforce, seeing it, rather, as fractured and divided. However, this isn't the case. 

The fashion industry is a glaring example of a supply chain that abuses its workers and violates their rights.  As Bangladeshi garment workers endure appalling working conditions, on the other end of the supply chain, fashion models walking the runways in New York, Paris, and Milan also suffer egregious labor rights violations. First, many of these models are underage and vulnerable: the average age to start working as a model is 15 years old and these girls often work far from home and without any adult chaperones. Furthermore, models struggle with widespread sexual harassment and a lack of financial transparency in the industry. Evidently, the struggles of fashion models and garment workers are more similar than they are different. Both groups face unsafe working condition, prevalent child labor, and unreliable compensation. Unfortunately, while most models working in the United States are aware of the labor issues that affect their working conditions, they do not consider the atrocious rights violations of the Bangladeshi garment workers who produce the clothes that create the need for working fashion models. 

The Rana Plaza factory collapse demonstrates labor's and governments' inability to hold fashion companies accountable for their actions even when those actions have disastrous consequence. It proves that pursuit of profits over worker protections is not only unjust, it is a violation of basic human rights. Because these fashion giants marginalize workers all along the supply chain, it is absolutely imperative to establish international bodies to organize workers along industry-specific supply chains. This is key to pressuring companies to improve rights for their workers. If we are to end these injustices, we have to begin by looking at the labor market as a whole and by seeing workers from around the world as part of the global labor force. Only by organizing from all sides, will labor groups be able to confront their right violations and provoke change.