After 1,127 workers died when a building at the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed in April, fashion lovers started to take a closer look at what they were wearing. With 5,000 factories and more than 3.6 million garment workers, Bangladesh is the third-largest exporter of clothing in the world (after China and Italy), but while consumers are happy to snap up plenty of bargain-priced outfits, most of the people who produce those clothes work in slave-like or sweatshop conditions.
Sweatshops are often thought of as belonging to another era, one from way before child labor laws and unions. But they still exist all around the world, even in the United States. Sweatshop workers, many of whom are underage, are forced to work long or multiple shifts for low wages and under dangerous conditions—and companies we all know and love often benefit from the practice.
In December, the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division declared that Los Angeles-area clothing manufacturers were guilty of "widespread violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act's minimum wage, overtime, and record-keeping provisions" and accused them of engaging in "sweatshop practices" as they made products for Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, HSN, Wet Seal, Aldo, Burlington Coat Factory, and other retailers. One Los Angeles worker told Bloomberg Business Week that she earned 12 cents for each vest she sewed; the vests were sold by Forever 21 for $13.80 a piece.
But that pales in comparison to what investigators found when they looked into factories in India that produced clothing for Gap in 2007.
“Last week, we spent four days working from dawn until about one o’clock in the morning the following day," a 12-year-old child laborer named Jivaj told The Observer. "I was so tired I felt sick. If any of us cried we were hit with a rubber pipe. Some of the boys had oily cloths stuffed in our mouths as punishment.” Conditions at the factory, which forced children to work 16-hour days for no pay at all, were dismal—a stark contrast to Gap's ethical image.
A Gap spokesperson told The Observer that they have stopped the work order for that vendor and are taking steps to make sure that none of their products are made using child labor. Since then, Gap has joined with retailers like Levi Strauss, Abercrombie & Fitch, and American Eagle Outfitters to promise not to buy cotton from Uzbekistan factories, where reports of child labor abound. The International Labor Rights Forum launched a petition to persuade Forever 21 to sign as well.
In April, a worker's rights group found slave-labor like conditions at an Argentinian factory where fashion favorite Zara allegedly produced some of its products. Zara officials released a statement saying that the workshops "do not appear to have any relationship with our approved suppliers in Argentina."
On Monday, Zara's parent company, Inditex, took their commitment to ethics a step further, signing on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding pledge to improve conditions for garment workers there.
Swedish clothing giant H&M has also signed the accord, along with global brands PvH (which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) and German retailer Tchibo.
"H&M has for many years taken the lead to improve and secure the safety of the workers in the garment industry," Helena Helmersson, H&M's head of sustainability, said in a statement. "We hope for a broad coalition of signatures in order for the agreement to work effectively on the ground."
Gap, however, refused to sign on; a spokesperson for the company explained that it did not want to open itself up to possible lawsuits and did not want to have to pay for the safety upgrades. Instead, they promised to launch their own fire- and workplace-safety programs.
While it's great that people are finally paying attention, our desire for cheap clothing has led to a dependence on factories that can churn out garments quickly and inexpensively, allowing us to get an affordable version of some Kate Middleton-inspired dress or other designer knock-off. Meanwhile, some companies continue to reap the profits.
How much does this matter to you? Are there any stores where people can shop guilt-free without totally breaking their budget?