Where five clothing factories once operated now stood a pile of rubble, concrete slabs, and cascading fabrics. The Rana Plaza disaster on April 24, 2013, in Bangladesh, is arguably one of the most disastrous accidents to happen in the industry, claiming 1,132 lives and injuring thousands more. They are not, however, uncommon. In the years following the incident, at least a hundred more accidents occurred, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries. In an industry fueled by rapidly changing trends and widespread demand, the success of fast fashion hinges on the exploitation of women and children in developing countries.
What is Fast Fashion?
Essentially, fast fashion involves the rapid production of clothing items with the goal of meeting current fashion trends and satisfying demands in the shortest amount of time possible. Renowned fast fashion giant Zara, for instance, is able to design, manufacture, and sell a new fashion collection in under a month. Through a process known as “lean retailing,” this collection is then only sold for just four to six weeks before being put on sale and restarting the cycle again.
However, the expeditious nature of fast fashion means that it relies heavily on the exploitation of its workers and extreme working conditions to keep up with packed schedules and constantly changing trends. It is undeniable that a majority of garment factory workers are women from developing countries. In Southeast Asia, for example, women make up 76% of the fast fashion industry’s employees in Thailand whilst the number rises to 86% in Laos. Children also account for a significant portion of the industry’s labor force. An estimated 170 million children are “engaged in child labor,” with most of them working as part of the fashion supply chain. In Asia and the Pacific, child laborers total an alarming 77.7 million out of the overall 168 million children in child labor.
The working conditions in garment factories pose further concerns. Workers are forced to work for 12 to 14 hours every day in factories that lack safety precautions such as emergency exits or fire extinguishers, though some are pushed to work “mandatory 20-hour shifts.” Employees are required to meet a production quota and are subject to a salary deduction if they fail to do so. This is even more alarming considering the already insufficient wages that employees are paid; around 93% of fast fashion companies “aren’t paying garment workers a living wage,” with wages averaging between 13 to 18 cents per hour in Bangladesh without overtime or injury pay. Moreover, those who oppose these conditions face a series of abuses from their employers. A sewing operator reported that higher-ups would hurl clothes at them or even hire local thugs to beat up those who stand up to the abuse.
What Rights do Garment Workers Have?
On paper, there are several international laws that serve to protect garment workers. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), for instance, states that people have the right to work in “just and favorable conditions” as well as the right to be fairly paid for their labor. According to Article 24, everyone also “has the right to rest and leisure” which should be ensured by rational working hours. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also echoes the same sentiments as the UDHR. For example, Article 7 of the ICESCR argues for “fair wages” and “safe and healthy working conditions.” Furthermore, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that children, defined as individuals younger than the age of 18, are entitled to “protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being” to be provided by both their guardians and the state. Evidently, the fast fashion industry has and continues to violate these fundamental human rights. Even then, there is a lack of efficient accountability mechanisms.
Alternatives to Fast Fashion
Despite the issues that come with fast fashion, its low price points make it an accessible and affordable choice for many people. However, there are numerous alternatives to buying fast fashion. Supporting local businesses, for instance, would mean reducing your purchase’s carbon footprint since the products are not shipped internationally. Buying second-hand clothes also minimize the impact of fast fashion as it reduces the demand for newly manufactured pieces. Another option would be to limit the purchase of trendy fashion items. Instead, by opting for basic yet timeless clothes, it prolongs their life cycle rather than having to be replaced with every new trend that comes about. These efforts are clearly more sustainable than continuously purchasing new fast fashion items. Ultimately, however, it is still crucial to raise awareness of the drawbacks of the fast fashion industry as well as advocate for the improved treatment of its workers.
– Isabelle Amurao
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