THE PRICE OF FASHION: BROWN BODIES IN THE THIRD WORLD
Updated: Feb 2
Almost 8 years since Rana Plaza collapsed in Dhaka, it is business as usual in the fast fashion industry
On 25th April 2013, Rana Plaza, a nine-story building with five garment factories in a busy district of Dhaka, collapsed in front of hundreds of onlookers. On the day of the collapse, over 1,100 workers died inside the building, and another 2,500 were injured. They were employed by vendors supplying to global fashion brands in the developed world. This was the deadliest disaster in the history of the clothing manufacturing industry.
In a September 2013 meeting coordinated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), representatives of the Bangladesh government and trade unions signed a pact called the Rana Plaza Arrangement with 29 global fashion brands which had recent or current orders with at least one of the five garment factories in the Rana Plaza building, including Benetton (Italy), Bonmarche (UK), Cato Fashions (USA), The Children's Place (USA), El Corte Ingles (Spain), Joe Fresh (Loblaws, Canada), Kik (Germany), Mango (Spain), Matalan (UK), Primark (UK/Ireland) and Texman (Denmark). The participants had agreed to work towards creating a mechanism for compensating each of the workers killed and injured at Rana Plaza.
The Dependency Paradox
Why were these brands, all of which are based in the Global North, manufacturing in Bangladesh in the first place? If we look at the dependency theory of international relations, capitalism works on the basis of pre-existing conditions of inequality between the Global North and the Global South. The developed world is the core and the developing and under-developed world is the periphery of the dependency arrangement. Now, the periphery is dependent on the core for trade, economic aid etc, but this theory also contends that the core is dependent on the periphery to sustain its wealth as well. The example of the fast fashion industry illustrates this well. Thanks to lower manufacturing costs (lower wages) in the developing world, garment and footwear manufacturing has almost entirely shifted to Asian countries (the periphery). Due to these low manufacturing costs, fashion has become extremely affordable for European and North American consumers (the core). Even for developing countries, fashion exports create jobs and growth, helping to bring poverty rates down. It has also led to a sustained income for women, who make a majority of the workers at these manufacturing units. But, it has also highlighted the acute inequality between the workers and the brands that they work for. More often than not, European and North American brands and retailers can dictate conditions to developing-country manufacturers and vendors, forcing them to cut costs in order to compete. The ultimate victims are factory workers, toiling long hours in harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions, for wages that are barely enough to make ends meet. In many countries, restrictions on trade unions make it harder for workers to assert their rights. All this while, the brands they work for continue to earn multiple times more than the wages they pay to workers in their manufacturing units. For instance, the founder of Inditex which owns Zara (one of the brands involved in Rana Plaza), Amancio Ortega was the third-richest person in the world at the time of the incident. With local vendors reluctant or financially unable to invest in safety, many people die in accidents like the one in Dhaka. The brands in the developed world do not incentivize vendors to improve working conditions. Instead, vendors are heavily penalised for late deliveries and payments are often withheld. This illustrates how the core is dependent on the periphery for sustained profits in a capitalist economic system of the world. The core not only benefits from low wages and lax labour laws in the periphery, but it also actively makes sure the conditions continue to remain what they are, through some of its actions and policies. When a tragedy of the scale of Rana Plaza unfolds, it is no longer possible for enterprises in the core to turn a blind eye. After the Rana Plaza disaster, over 200 companies joined the Bangladesh Accord, which has helped to eliminate some of the worst safety hazards. While these are positive developments, a lot more still needs to be done on the part of enterprises that manufacture in the third world.
Righting Historical Wrongs with Postcolonialism
A study for the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations found that while factory safety had improved since the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, Bangladesh was backsliding on workers’ rights. Many of Bangladesh’s numerous garment factories are structurally safer, but the workers inside them are not. Unions, if they are allowed to exist, find it very difficult to assert their rights and voice complaints. Union leaders face threats and intimidation, which hampers their ability to investigate the claims of abuse -- most of which come from women who make up the majority of the workforce in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The results of this study were released in March 2020. The mechanism put in place by the European fashion brands to improve workers’ safety in Bangladesh’s garment factories also came to an end on May 31 this year. After almost 7 years of this mechanism being in place, why has only the structural safety of the buildings been achieved? Why has there been no improvement when it comes to actual rights of the workers and their bodily safety? To answer these pertinent questions, we need to look at this incident from a postcolonial lens.
“Postcolonialism examines how societies, governments and people in the formerly colonised regions of the world experience international relations” (Nair, 2017). It is concerned with the inequalities in global power, wealth accumulation, and why some states and groups exercise so much power over others. A key theme of postcolonialism is that the Western perceptions of the non-West are a result of the European imperial legacy. Discourses in the West othered non-Western people, usually in an attempt to portray them as inferior to the superior race of the colonizers. In doing so, they justified the process of European colonization and branded it as an attempt to bring civilisation and progress to the colonized areas. This process of making the non-West seem naturally inferior to the West builds perceptions that continue to this day. Once this perception is set in, Western policymakers, enterprises, or society at large, are not compelled to examine how the experience of colonization may have led to the present inequalities. This draws us back to the circumstances surrounding Rana Plaza. It is clear from the US Senate study that the mechanism put into place by brands in the Global North and some international organisations only managed to achieve surface-level improvement in the conditions of garment factory workers in Bangladesh. There have been numerous incidents in the clothing manufacturing industry, not only in Bangladesh but across the supply chain in Asia. Fashion enterprises and the international society were only compelled to do something in 2013 because of the scale of the tragedy at Rana Plaza. For the Global North shareholders, making sure that the building never falls again has been achieved. There will be no international media or civil society pressure if a visible infrastructural damage resulting in direct loss of lives doesn’t take place. But what about the bodies housed within that building? Postcolonial scholars would argue that the deeply exploitative conditions and the disregard for the safety of these workers show that lesser value is ascribed to brown bodies compared to white ones. This idea is summed up well in this quote, “postcolonialism argues that addressing and finding solutions to poverty and global inequality come up against representations of the ‘other’ that make it difficult for Western policymakers to shed their biases and address the underlying global structural factors such as how capital and resources are accumulated and flow around the world generating inequality”. For this reason, solutions often focus only on intervening to support a seemingly less developed state, rather than addressing the underlying causes of global inequality. The Bangladesh Accord and various other charities were formed as an almost altruistic pact to help the poor, third world country get better infrastructure and not as a sustained effort to address the underlying causes of poverty in Bangladesh.
In fact, when the tragedy unfolded in 2013, President Barack Obama of the United States suspended trade preferences to Bangladesh instead of forcing companies in his own country to do more to ensure the safety of people who directly contribute to their profits (and subsequently the economy of his country). The coverage of the incident in the Western media also vastly differed from the coverage in Bangladesh. The British and US newspapers framed the incident as somewhat inevitable, while the Bangladeshi press delved deeper into the issue to highlight systemic failures on the part of the vendors, authorities and global stakeholders.
At their core, both dependency theory and postcolonialism in international relations aim to question the existing power structures that come out of knowledge systems created in the developed world. The analyses of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza tragedy using these two lenses show us that entrenched inequalities have reasons going back hundreds of years and open our eyes to our own biases. They also help us identify stakeholder responsibility in the Global North and demand for compensation to the Global South, for both historical wrongs and current tragedies arising out of those. This particular example is also a wake-up call for the fast fashion industry of the world and the cost that brown bodies are forced to pay for providing cheap clothing and footwear to the white world.
1. Rana Plaza — Clean Clothes Campaign. (2019, August 13). Clean Clothes Campaign. https://cleanclothes.org/campaigns/past/rana-plaza
2. Russell, M. (2020, July 24). Textile workers in developing countries and the European fashion industry: Towards sustainability? - Think Tank. European Parliament Think Tank. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI(2020)652025
3. Thomson Reuters Foundation, & Karim, N. (2020, March 19). After Dhaka’s 2013 Rana Plaza mishap, Bangladesh’s garment factories are safer – its workers are not. Scroll.In; Scroll.in. https://scroll.in/article/955813/seven-years-after-rana-plaza-bangladeshs-garment-factories-are-safer-but-its-workers-are-not
4. Technical Trade Proclamation to Congress Regarding Bangladesh | whitehouse.gov. (2013, June 27). Whitehouse.Gov; White House Press Secretary. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/27/technical-trade-proclamation-congress-regarding-bangladesh
5. Nair, S. (2017, December 8). Introducing Postcolonialism in International Relations Theory. E-International Relations; https://www.facebook.com/einternationalrelations. https://www.e-ir.info/2017/12/08/postcolonialism-in-international-relations-theory/
6. Ashfaquzzaman, M. (2017). Analyzing Rana Plaza crisis discourse from a postcolonial perspective: Implications for identity and crisis communication studies. Dissertations and Theses @ UNI.
Cover Image: Solidarity Center
About the author: Palak Maheshwari is currently a postgraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs. She is interested in public diplomacy, soft power, East Asia, postcolonialism, film and other visual cultures.