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Why the Garment Business Is Still a Dangerous One for Workers

Ten years on from Rana Plaza, factory fires and other safety failings still kill and injure hundreds of people working in the textile industry every year.
Women sew sweatpants at a factory in Bangladesh.
After the Rana Plaza disaster, safety standards at many factories in Bangladesh improved. But elsewhere in the industry, risks remain severe. (Mustasinur Rahman Alvi/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
By
  • Alyssa Hardy
BoF PROFESSIONAL

Key insights

  • After the fatal collapse of Rana Plaza, a landmark safety agreement helped improve conditions at thousands of factories in Bangladesh. Elsewhere, little changed.
  • Last year, nearly 600 people were injured working in garment factories around the world and 64 died.
  • Efforts to address safety issues have been undercut by the drive for faster, cheaper fashion, but pressure from regulators, investors and campaigners are beginning to drive more action.

When Rana Plaza collapsed 10 years ago, killing 1,134 workers in Bangladesh and injuring thousands more, it cast a dreadful spotlight on critical safety failings in fashion’s supply chains.

In the wake of the disaster, hundreds of brands signed onto a groundbreaking, legally binding safety agreement with unions that helped improve conditions at thousands of factories in Bangladesh. But elsewhere, little has changed; the garment business is still dangerous for those on the factory floor.

Last year, 580 people working in garment factories were injured, and another 64 died, according to data from news reports collected by the labour advocacy group Clean Clothes Campaign. In the first four months of 2023, 70 workers were injured, and 22 died, the data showed. For the most part, it’s not that apparel manufacturing is inherently dangerous, but rather that safety failings allow for preventable accidents like fires and boiler explosions.

Safety risks for the apparel sector in major manufacturing hubs like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are still considered extreme, according to risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

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A Dangerous Business

For years brands have said they’re committed to ensuring worker safety, even as fashion has become faster and cheaper.

The result is a disjointed supply chain structure under constant strain from intense price pressure. Many brands outsource production to manufacturers in several countries, making it more difficult to monitor safety standards. Subcontracting is common, adding another layer of opacity.

Efforts to address these challenges largely rely on private auditing systems and voluntary codes of conduct developed in the wake of a series of sweatshop scandals in the ‘90s. Labour groups say the model has little progress to show after more than 20 years of operation.

“Apparel brands cannot be relied upon to police themselves when it comes to working conditions,” Teresa Haas, director of global strategies at Worker’s United, a cross-disciplinary labour union in the United States, told Business of Fashion in an email.

Even in countries that are considered less risky, garment workers routinely face unsafe conditions, according to labour advocacy groups.

In Los Angeles, where most of America’s apparel factories are located, efforts by some factory owners to skirt new worker protections have made safety infringements more likely in some cases, said Jonathan Coleman, communications director for LA-based campaign group Garment Worker’s Centre.

“Garment workers being forced to work in dangerous conditions is still common,” said Coleman, pointing to increased reports of locked factory doors — a significant fire hazard — “as some factory owners attempt to go deeper underground.”

Changing the Model

For brands, failing to address fashion’s safety shortfalls is getting riskier. New regulations in places like California and Germany have stepped up brands’ accountability for working conditions in their manufacturers. More legislation requiring companies to monitor and address labour abuses in their supply chains is in the works in the European Union and the US.

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Even without more regulation, high-profile, social-media-savvy activist campaigns are a growing reputational hazard for companies that don’t act. For instance, advocacy groups like Fashion Revolution and Remake have targeted brands that have yet to join efforts to expand the landmark safety agreement struck in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza internationally.

Investors are stepping up the pressure, too. Earlier this month, a coalition of 192 global institutional investors representing $1.3 trillion in assets under management put out a statement calling on apparel brands to strengthen their human rights due diligence.

Beyond the ethical obligations that brands have to their workers, safety is a business issue, said Rev. David Schilling, senior advisor on human rights at the Interfaith Centre on Corporate Responsibility, the investor coalition that led the call.

“There are huge risks, not just reputational ones,” he said. “Money is on the table.”

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