“I have formed a union at my work. I’ve been the president of the union since its formation. We submitted a list of demands and the manager received it. After they received the list we had an altercation with the managers. After the altercation, the managers locked the doors,” states Shima Akhter, a 23-year-old single mother recalling her experience as a Bangladeshi garment worker in the social documentary The True Cost. “And along with the managers, 30-40 staffers attacked us and beat us up. They used chairs, sticks, scales, and things like scissors to beat us up. Mostly, they kicked and punched us and banged our heads on the walls. They hit us mostly in the chest and abdomen.”
Shima is one of nearly 40 million garment workers in the world today who prop up a $3-trillion industry, many of whom earn slave wages, which for Shima amounts to $10 a month. The globalization of the garment industry, where corporations contract factories overseas to mass-produce clothing for a fraction of the cost, has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the price of our apparel. Deals like $5 t-shirts and $25 sweaters, buy one get the second half-price, may seem, on the surface, a positive result to the majority of consumers. But the repercussions of this trend have far reaching consequences, from people to the planet, laws, economies, and even our unassuming university in the Valley.
“I kind of see the issue from two sides,” said Abeni Steegstra, president of the global development studies club at UFV. “On one hand, it’s the consumers choice, and we can essentially vote, and change the market trend with our purchases. But that can’t be it alone, because our government is elected to work for the people and champion human rights. There are still laws and regulations that need to be changed within countries. Right now regulation in the clothing industry is largely private, so companies are regulating themselves. It’s really pointless.”
This style of hands-off government, where capitalism must be left unfettered by the dirty paws of government regulation in order for the market — our economy, wages, product values, etc. — to balance itself, according to demand, is called “neoliberalism,” and it has had devastating effects on our planet and society for decades. This neoliberalism, and its obsessive quarterly-profit protocol, has companies hunting a new “bottom-line” across the globe, constantly pressuring manufacturers for cheaper contracts under threat of taking their business elsewhere, to China or Nepal, or some other subjugated community.
In the late-1950s, only one out of 25 garments purchased in the United States was produced abroad, proclaims Vicki Carnis’ paper “Sweat or No Sweat.” During the 1960s and 1970s, however, manufacturers began moving their operations outside of the United States. Currently, more than 97 per cent of clothes and shoes sold in the United States are made abroad.
Poor countries are desperate for the business, seeing it as a way to lift themselves, or at least a few of their shrewd members, out of poverty. They are often forced to cut corners in order to meet the unreasonable demands. This results in horrific human rights violations, unethical work practices, and in many cases, murder and suicide.
“The Rana Plaza disaster is an example of hypercapitalism and deregulation pushed to its inevitable conclusion,” states Carnis.
On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories in four of its eight floors, collapsed and took 1,133 lives with it, making it the deadliest garment factory disaster in known history, writes Alexandra Rose in her paper “The High Cost of Cheap Clothing.” Another 2,500 people were gravely injured, many disabled permanently. One survivor, 22-year-old Rebecca Khatun, who “lost her left leg, right foot, and five of her family members, including her mother, in the collapse, recalled the morning of the catastrophe as follows: ‘We didn’t want to enter the building because of the huge cracks detected the day before, but the manager told us, ‘Unless you go in, you won’t get paid and you’ll lose your job.’ So, we entered, but I vowed then that I would collect that month’s salary and quit.’ She remained crushed underneath a beam until rescuers found her the following day.” The managers of the factory, including Rana himself, were caught attempting to flee the country and released on bail; the case remains postponed to this day. The owner, Mohammad Sohel Rana, and former chief engineer are in custody, but at least five of the others accused are on the run, according to Al Jazeera news.
Bangladesh accounts for almost 25 per cent of the U.S.’s imports. Despite the collapse of Rana Plaza the industry saw a 16 per cent rise in exports to the U.S.: $23.9 billion from the time of the collapse to March 2014.
One year prior, when the Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka burned during the night of November 24, 2012, it injured 200 and killed at least 112 while its 600 employees were working unethical overtime. At the time, the factory was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Sears, Walt Disney Co., and other major, multinational retailers. The vast majority of the victims, as is almost always the case, were women.
“Rather than leading exit strategies to minimize the death toll,” writes Alexandra Rose, “managers told workers to ignore the fire alarms, calling it a mock fire drill, and ordered them to return to work. Nine mid-level officials padlocked the exits, preventing workers from leaving the building. The main gate, the only entry and exit point of the factory, was found locked just after the fire began, exposing the fleeing workers to excruciating smoke inhalation and suffocation.” Life-threatening practices such as blocking factory exits are a common tactic used to keep employees working, and are often hidden under the cover of night.
“It is important to remember the deep effects of our shopping habits,” affirmed Steegstra. “Not only on the garment workers, but on the cotton industry as well. It’s easy not to think about the raw materials. The issue of Monsanto’s Bt cotton monopoly in India is, in my opinion, one of the most heartbreaking stories I have ever researched. Indian cotton farmers have one of the highest suicide rates in history.”
The multinational agrochemical corporation Monsanto is monopolizing the agriculture industry around the world by patenting seeds, a profiteering scheme based on dope-pusher principals. “Bt cotton is a cotton in which a gene has been added to withstand chemicals,” proclaimed Vandana Shiva, a prominent Indian environmental activist. “Bt cotton was offered to farmers as a way for Monsanto to own the seed.”
Monsanto hooked farmers on a seed that withstands heavy pesticide use in order for farmers to produce enough of a product to support an unsustainable industry model. Little did the farmers know that they will now be forced to return to Monsanto to purchase new seeds each season, at inflating prices, in order to re-stock their leased farms. The farming communities are riddled with diseases due to the relentless use of pesticides. Entire communities suffer from mental disabilities, physical deformities, cancers, and more. Mothers await the death of their severely disabled children. The farmers sink further into debt until one morning they are found in the cotton field, poisoned to death after drinking their own pesticide.
“I think a big problem is that it’s easier to identify the issue, but as soon as you recognize that, it’s harder to know where your place is, and what you can do to help,” said Steegstra. “In global development, I would say that much of my degree has been identifying the problems, but finding a solution is more complex. Certain brands were boycotted after the Rana Plaza incident. Corporations abandoned their factories in Bangladesh to escape the controversy, and then those factory workers were out of work and the response from the developing world was ‘Stop boycotting us, we have no jobs now.’”
This obstacle is a key argument of hypercapitalists: that globalization brings jobs to impoverished countries, and offers an opportunity for them to lift themselves out of poverty. This would be true, if companies allotted space on their quarterly reports for ethical development and humanitarian practices, but within the ideology of pure capitalism there is no room for stifled monetary progress, and contractors are forced to compete with ceaselessly tightening budgets. There are, however, companies that are establishing a new business model, one based on fair work practices that put people and the planet before monetary gain.
It’s called “ethical capitalism,” and it constitutes at least two essential elements: a focus on creating long-term economic and social value, and a commitment by business to act as stewards over the full spectrum of its influence — customers, employees, suppliers, society, investors, and the environment, as explained by Stanley Bergman in The Huffington Post. Numerous companies are transitioning towards this way of doing business, from People Tree to Patagonia: a testament to the growing desire consumers are showing for these kinds of options. Ethical capitalism is proving itself not only as a humanitarian success, but also as a more developed and sustainable way of doing business. Employees become more invested in the success of the business, the retention rate skyrockets, the company gains a more experienced, harder working and dedicated workforce, product quality goes up and correlatively so does customer loyalty. These types of humane companies are consistently becoming more common and recognizable.
Of course, many major corporations are attempting to sink their teeth into this growing market by “greenwashing” products with meaningless labels and sleazy marketing campaigns. This greenwashing makes it difficult to discover authentic and dedicated ethical companies. “I think that it is important for students to know tangible ways that they can actually help,” said Steegstra. “Shopping at a thrift store is big, especially environmentally, but be aware that thrifting isn’t a complete solution. There are still fundamental issues that need to be resolved. Look up ethical brands, because then you’re employing someone, and they are being treated fairly. Clothing swaps are great. Petitions are something underrated that you can sign immediately online. You can also write a letter to your MP.” Another simple step you can take when shopping is to ask yourself, before you buy an item, Will I wear this 30 times? If the answer is yes, consider purchasing, if the answer is no, reassess your prerogatives, and remember the garment workers.
These are important tangible steps we can take as individuals, but it is also important to feel a part of something bigger, to gain a deeper gratification that only comes from the knowledge that you’re ensconcing yourself in an enlightened, forward-thinking movement. But that might not be the case at UFV.
Our University of the Fraser Valley recently disassembled our fashion and design program. This was a financial “bottom-line” decision, no doubt. Students enrolled in this program either had to uproot their lives and transfer to another university, or take whatever credits they acquired from these classes and transfer what would fit into electives for another program. What does this decision represent in terms of our values as a scholarly body, when support for the arts is the first academic branch to be chopped? What hope do we have as a community to spawn local designers, artists, and entrepreneurs who can spearhead this pressing issue when our tuition allocators perpetually stunt artistic innovation? Regardless of this suppression, ambitious students and faculty are fighting for progress.
The Sustainability Centre has been struggling for six years to convince the university board to budget funds for textile recycling bins on campus, as well as compost receptacles, according to a source who wished to remain anonymous. Members of UFV’s Sustainability Centre and global development studies students have been petitioning for ethically-sourced clothing at the campus bookstore.
“Global development club hosts a variety of events,” remarked Steegstra, smiling. “We do movie nights, and one major event per semester. Last semester, in December, we hosted a fair trade market in the SUB where students could come and learn about shopping ethically. We also had local vendors come to sell their stuff. Last year we also did an ethical clothing fundraiser, which we are going to do again this year. After the clothing drive event this March, we are planning on doing an H&M sit-in protest.”
As passionate and informed citizens seeking to improve our society’s way of life, the odds are stacked against us. There are people in power who are profiting from the status quo, but it is imperative that we continue to align our actions with our beliefs. Every decision we make, every action taken, every word spoken, and every dollar spent is a counter-punch to a malfunctioning system.
“I’ve been so passionate about this issue for so long, and it finally seems to be coming into fruition, so I’m super excited,” exclaimed Abeni. “It all begins with us: individuals making a statement. That’s why we are doing this clothing drive, and a sit-in at H&M with everyone there that is game. We just have to make sure nobody wears anything from H&M that day.”