The price of cheap clothing — 377 die in Bangladesh factory collapse

By Caitlin Kelly

As many of you know by now, more than 377 men and women making clothing for companies like Primark, JC Penney, Benetton and others, were killed two days ago in the collapse of a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

JC Penney is one of the three department store...
JC Penney is one of the three department stores at the mall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s part of the story from The New York Times:

Thousands of people surrounded the site on Sunday, watching the huge rescue operation, even as hopes faded that many more victims would be found alive. For nearly 12 hours, rescuers tried to save a trapped woman, lowering dry food and juice to her as they carefully cut through the wreckage trying to reach her. But then a fire broke out, apparently killing the woman, leaving many firefighters in tears.

With national outrage boiling over, Bangladeshi paramilitary officers tracked down and arrested Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, who was hiding near the Indian border, and returned him by helicopter to Dhaka. When loudspeakers at the rescue site announced his capture earlier in
the day, local news reports said, the crowd broke out in cheers.

The collapse of the building, the Rana Plaza, is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. It is known to have claimed at least 377 lives, and hundreds more workers are
thought to be missing still, buried in the rubble.

The Rana Plaza building contained five garment factories, employing more than 3,000 workers, who were making clothing for European and American consumers.

It is worth reading the story because the accompanying photo is so heartbreaking, and one is horribly familiar to  any New Yorker — it is a wall with posters and photos of missing workers, posted by their loved ones, seeking them. After the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, struck down by two jet airliners, there was an equally feverish, often insane, hope that the thousands of workers trapped in those buildings might have escaped alive.

Some did. Many did not.

But their posters were plastered all over the city. They were truly “Wanted” posters, but too often in vain. You could not look at them, even if you knew no one affected, and not want to weep.

Karwan Bazar, one of the most important busine...
Karwan Bazar, one of the most important business centres in Dhaka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is hard to know what, if anything, one can usefully say about this Dhaka disaster, the largest (so far) such industry accident in history:

— That the workers were very far away from the people who buy and wear the clothes they make

— That they earn, on average, $37 a month

— That they are completely without political and economic power since this industry is essential to the nation’s economy

— That many of the owners of these factories are also politicians, further weakening any oversight or regulation of the workers so endangered

— That we, as people who buy the cheap clothes they make, are all complicit

Three very powerful recent books are well worth reading, if this topic also disturbs and interests you:

Where Am I Wearing, by a young American freelance journalist who traveled to these countries and factories to meet and speak to the workers there.

Cheap, by Boston University professor Ellen Ruppel Shell,  a scathing condemnation of what it really costs to produce some items we enjoy at low prices but hidden high costs, from frozen Thai shrimp to cultured pearls.

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline.

As I write this post, I’m wearing a cotton Gap dress and cashmere Ralph Lauren cardigan; the dress was made in Indonesia and the sweater in China.

So, I too, am complicit in the use of overseas, sub-contracted, poorly-supervised labor. I know it. I hate it. I am not at all clear what (else) to do.

My clothes, probably like many of yours as well, no matter where you live, are made cheaply by people we will never meet or know or feel, possibly, much responsibility to.

Bangladeshi woman
Bangladeshi woman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until they are killed making it.

What are our choices?

— Make all our own shoes and clothing, (not practical for most of us)

— Wear only clothing made by American workers, (if you are American)

— Look for the ILGWU label, if so

— Find out which manufacturers, (if possible), were sub-contracting work to Rana, and Tazreen, site of another major Bangladeshi garment factory fire that killed 112 workers and boycott all their products

— And spread the word through social media

Here’s a story about Aminul Islam, who tried to organize Bangladeshi garment factory workers.

He was killed.




69 thoughts on “The price of cheap clothing — 377 die in Bangladesh factory collapse

  1. Yogagurl

    Since it is very very hard to buy only American clothes (I don’t even know where to go) I’d say we need social/economic pressure on these companies to choose manufacturing companies that are fair and safe to their workers. Like the whole GMO issue, that social media marketed all the well known companies that worked against labeling of GMO’s, we could “out” those American companies that buy from poorly managed manufacturers. They do not want the negative image. In the case of the GMO fiasco…as a result of social media marketing those companies, many actually joined the others side as a result of being “outed”.

    1. I agree. The larger challenge is cutting through the endless supply chain issues and work with non-profits and labor groups to get the names and publicize them.

      But the fact is — people here with no money (irony?) will have to keep buying cheap clothes because they can’t afford others. Boycotting may well be a higher income level choice.

  2. I read Overdressed during the Thanksgiving holiday last year and it really opened my eyes, not just as to the horrendous condition of the workers, but the the amount of waste the cheap garment industry produces, from production by underpaid workers to disposal by thoughtless consumers. My grandmother still has clothing from the Depression, and I was buying tank tops that wouldn’t last three washes. It’s changed the way I think about clothes and shopping – even donating clothing was not as safe as I thought! I’ve always preferred quality to quantity but now the idea has taken on new meaning for me. I don’t buy anything that won’t last me at least several years, American if I can and companies with decent manufactures standards if I can’t, but even that is hard. I’m more committed to mending, tailoring, and altering clothing than every before. And I refuse to shop at “fast fashion” stores anymore. J. and I have committed to not buying any new clothing for at least a couple years in London, the only exceptions being replacing worn out clothes or special event wear should the need arise. It’s not a huge contribution to a solution, but it’s something.

    1. Good for you!

      Cline’s book seems to have done very well, and good for her.

      Having grown up in Canada, I was raised with a quite different shopping ethic — everything costs more there than here and salaries are lower and taxes are higher. i.e. if you have less disposable income, you simply do not shop as much and you keep better stuff longer by maintaining it. I am wearing shoes I bought in 1996 (super high quality) and have re-soled them and always keep my stuff in decent shape.

      I occasionally buy from places like H & M but I only stuff that I plan to wear for a year or more (a few dresses, some accessories.) I am usually appalled by the poor quality of workmanship and construction. But if it’s all you’ve ever worn, you don’t even know there are better choices.

  3. Personally, I am careful about what I buy and always read the label of where it is manufactured. I also buy from used clothing stores and am always on the hunt at garage sales and other business that sell used cloths. Often I am able to purchase cloths that would otherwise be out of my budget. I’d rather feel I’m doing what little I can to not contribute to the greedy, profit driven, capitalists.

    1. My eyes were truly opened when I worked retail — and every time we opened a new box it was from some low-labor-cost place — Peru, India, Indonesia, Mexico, China. I hated it.

      I also have bought some terrific clothing at consignment shop and flea markets. It’s a smart way to get good value.

      1. I always feel like I’m being ripped off when I pay full retail. You have to know what to look for though. But thats half the fun…wearing a beautiful linen jacket that you KNOW is unique.

    2. Yogagurl

      Businesses must profit to stay alive and create jobs. In fact, if you’ve ever run a business, you would see how it’s not easy. Without profit everything we want would not be created or made. Maybe what you are saying is not contribute to the race to the bottom line? I like John Mackey of Whole Foods…he embraces “conscious capitalism” that has some values to it. We need to instill some values in perhaps the clothing industry.

      1. That is really the point. The majority of clothing offered is poorly manufacturered garbage and not worth 1/4 of what I’ve paid for it. Plus, I have alot better taste than my wallet allows…so in the end I win by coming away with a much better quality piece and far far more style. I’m not interested in someone elses profit margins anyways. 😉 It’s purely selfish

  4. Every few years similar tragedies flood media for a few days or weeks, we cluck and protest – vow to change our habits – much like New Year resolutions, well meaning but impossible to keep. Out of sight is out of mind; not our problem. With Walmart the largest single employer in America, outsourcing the manufacturing of goods perpetuates the problem. Consumers for the most part care only for the bottom line. I don’t believe it possible for any grass root movement calling for change to do a damn bit of good.

    I don’t see an end in sight for people flocking to buy the latest iphone – no one seems to care that they are manufactured in China, Chinese factories making their components force workers to endure 18 hour days, suicide nets have been installed as workers jumping to their deaths was getting out of control.

    Consumerism feeds this monster. Until we are willing to purchase “ethical” anything, even though it might cost a little more – the problem will stay a feeble resolution. 🙂

    1. All true.

      I wrote about the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen in my book “Malled” and was one of the first to talk about this issue. Apple’s profit margins are crazy high thanks to this cheap labor — and you are right that people love their stuff. (Yes, I am typing on one.)

      The fact these workers are thousands of miles away is something Kelsey Timmerman writes in his book Where Am I Wearing? and he states it very well — we used to live beside people who made our stuff and so their lives felt real to us. We also had unions protecting wages and working conditions.

      While consumers could buy less (unlikely), the corporate brass need to be heavily pressured at every level to re-think this.

  5. We might also add here that worker safety is a serious matter everywhere. The explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas happened at a plant that hadn’t been inspected in 20 years. Worker safety issues, whether in the developed or developing world, aren’t as dramatic as terrorism, but the toll in lives is far too high. It is, of course, much much worse in developing countries but pressing for better regulations and enforcement locally is another way to create a larger climate in which people make a habit of insisting on safe workplaces whether for themselves or for the people who make the goods they purchase.

    1. Absolutely. Great point.

      The problem is how toothless OSHA is and how little oversight *they* get politically. Too often, workers in the most dangerous jobs rely on journalists and government to reveal bad conditions. Not a great option.

      I hope to write my next book about this.

  6. I read the Overdressed piece a while back, and loved it. My twenty-year-old has vowed never to buy non-fair trade again, except shoes, though she even tries to watch where they come from, too. She shops vintage shops and garage sales and picks up free clothes from school. They are cast offs. It’s easier when you are 20 because t-shirts are acceptable on college campuses.

    I have to wear professional clothes, but when I am home, I wear things my girl friends give me. I do not ever throw clothing away. We have a network of friends and we all pass kids clothes around. There is an excess of gently used clothing available. (According to the Cline article, we export used clothes from good wills and salvation armies at a ridiculous rate.) I have a tailor who lives near me. If I can afford to, I will buy clothes from her. There are places like zulily, where you can buy clothing made in New Zealand and the US for 60%off. We have to be willing to give up cutting edge fashion if we really care about the issue. My daughter is beautiful, but her fashion sense isn’t the latest. She knows that but she willingly gives it up so she can follow her conscience. She creates her own fashion.

    There are fair trade websites, but most of the time, they sell things, not clothes.

    It’s a difficult issue and we definitely need some clothing to be made on American soil.

    Hanna Anderrson and Boden USA are usually pretty good about ethical manufacturing practices. The clothes are about 2x as expensive, but they last.

    We vote with our wallets. What do we mean when we say we want this to change? Who is going to pay for that change?

    1. Lots to think about, for sure.

      Boden is expensive, and I keep trying to find something of theirs I like enough to lay down that much cash!

      I agree that dressing professionally raises the bar; consignment and thrift shops (if you have decent ones near you) are one good option, even for dressy clothes. I’ve scored some great things that way.

      One way to press for change is to buy stock and show up at these companies’ shareholder meetings to embarrass the C-suite guys who come to them. Not everyone can do it, but it’s another way in.

      1. I used to think that, but the more I talk about it with friends, the more I see that we need to keep talking about it. Most of mine don’t think about it. Only a few actually attempt to justify it by some craft of relative ethics. Keep shouting it out, Caitlin. Some of us are listening, and we can spread the word to those who aren’t.

      2. Most people don’t know, don’t care or don’t know what specific action they can take.

        Maybe even an email to the CEO and PR departments of these companies to register your disgust.

      3. Yogagurl

        What you do is keep talking about it until it becomes common knowledge. Also if someone creates videos or a documentary (video is always a strong tool when people see what is happening). Of course millions won’t or can’t care, they don’t have the income to options but if even a small part of the public chooses differently new ideas and ways of business are born. You never know. Look at the vegan movement. At one time hardly any options now a ton due to more and more people choosing it. Even though they are still a minority.

  7. KM

    I’m not sure what to do about this on a personal level right now. I haven’t bought new clothes in a long time for budgetary reasons, but I know there are problems in the industry that go back to before the last time I bought new clothes… I’m doing some research on this right now for a class paper – I’ll be interested to see if I can figure for myself how not to support those who don’t engage in safe practices for their workers, but I’m not sure there is a good answer.
    Not about to check my trousers right this second, but my top was made in Malaysia… :-/

    Good piece though, thanks.

    1. I’m glad you’re looking at this for class — there is a lot of material out there, which I’m sure you’ve found. If you can make time, I’d strongly urge you to read the three books I mentioned here. They have a lot of great data in them.

      Good luck with it!

      1. KM

        Thank you! I’ll look for those, though they probably won’t make it into the paper, there’s not enough time, but I’m interested in reading them anyway.

  8. REcyled clothing! I dress professionally 4 days a week, in consignment clothing. Consignment and second hand clothing stores are taking OFF and excellent solutions to buying anything but undies new. I’ll pray for those workers and their families. Thank you for the post.

  9. All good suggestions as well as wearing recycled clothing as someone else has mentioned. A big part of the problem is the belief that we have to be constantly dressing ourselves in the latest colours or fashions of each season. Because most people can’t reasonably afford to update their wardrobes with sustainably made clothing they have to buy ‘fast fashion’ pieces on the cheap (and nasty) because “neon is in” this season.

    There should be more focus and education for young people about how to dress for your body shape and they key to buying classic, well made investment pieces.

    Part of the problem is also that now we have created these environments and we accept these environments (even through our naievity) so what incentive is there for these businesses to change? And if they do, it would put out of work a huge chunk of the economy and potentially be devastating in that way anyway.

    1. I agree. But classic and well-made tend to be costly….If you’ve got $100 to spend and can buy 4 nasty things at Century 21 or H & M — or maybe one good thing (heavily discounted), which would you choose? For too many people, it’s the former.

      I recently bought a gray wool knit skirt whose original price tag (!???) was $268, which is totally insane. I paid $114, which is not cheap but it’s very well-made and I expect to wear it for several years — although I hope to be 2 sizes smaller by next year. (a whole ‘nother issue!)

      1. Agree it is a difficult (or really rather easy) choice to make when it comes to cost of clothes. And someone on limited income would have little choice but to buy more for less.

        I like to use the ‘cost per wear’ method which allows me to buy ridiculously expensive things as long as I wear them a LOT! haha

  10. I think the fact of the clothing factory being there in the first place is symptomatic of the way the modern world has developed generally; an exploitation of the have-nots by the haves. It’s not limited to clothing (though that’s where a lot of it happens to be). History offers sharp lessons. The exploitation of cloth and clothing workers – specifically – was an industrial age phenomenon, born on the back of social dislocation in the late eighteenth century. That was eventually corrected; but all that seems to have happened is that the whole system has been re-born, on a larger scale, as the east undergoes its own second industrial revolution. The haves of both east and west, like the captains of industry in c1800 Britain, are profiting at the expense of those who are powerless to change their own fortunes. Is there an answer? I don’t know; but what does seem clear is that the usual human pattern of inequity – something seen time and again through history and cultures – has once again been repeated. As always at the cost of the have-nots.

  11. Perhaps the only way to solve this problem is to lobby our Governments to cut sown on imports which might open up markets to home grown manufacturers and create more. The North West of the UK used to have many manufacturing industries based on cotton but they were priced out of the market years ago. Sanctions against the Governments that allow such shoddy building practises is maybe another way.

    I don’t hold the shops who sell this clothing as much to blame as some since I’m sure they send people to look at the conditions of the workers in these factories. But, I’m sure they can’t have knowledge of whether building regulations have been complied with. There needs to be assurance by some kind of building control that regulations have been adhered to in the building of a factory. When a person signs off to say this is the case, they should automatically become liable if the buildings become unsafe.
    I’m sure if our Governments weren’t so keen on import duties they could stop incoming shipments to be sure that clothing coming into our countries have been ethically sourced.

    Recently ( and not for the first time ) I received a notice from HMG Customs and Excise to say I had a parcel I needed to pay almost £40 to collect. I knew it was a gift from the US but had no idea what it was. The gift was beautiful, a fleece blanket with personal photographs all over it. But, I doubt it was sourced in the US. probably cost less than $100,( but declared about that in value) and my friend had paid over $60 for speedy delivery ( it wasn’t).That means the people dealing with goods coming in are on the ball with a small parcel can be equally as vigilant with a large delivery and can check the source quickly.If it’s not ethically sourced or if the goods are from a non-compliant country for workers rights and/or building regulations, they can be refused entry.

    1. All great suggestions.

      The challenge of asking governments to take this on (and I agree) is the tremendous power — in the US anyway — of these corporate giants. That, plus the balance of trade.

  12. Wow. A lot to think about. Whenever I read pieces like this I”m reminded (no idea where or if there is any truth to it at all) that someone told me once that many of the CEO’s of multi billion dollar industries are sociopaths…..because how else could you make such ruthless money based decisions that take advantage of so many? But then, maybe making these decisions behind a desk is as easy as it is for us to go shopping and buy these clothes. I know I do. Not sure what the answer is!

  13. I would love to buy clothing that is only made in Australia (to support my country as well as high safety standards for workers) but these products are difficult to find and most of the time your stuck with buying clothing made in third world countries. I think the best we can do is support companies who support safe work practices and remove the others from our shopping list.

  14. justaweirdthought

    Thanks for posting this. Almost all the South-Asian countries are facing similar problems.
    There is a huge economic divide between people. Slums under highways, huts beside the luxury apartments, vendors in a corporate park….these are all common scenes here.
    Nobody cares about the so-called lower class people despite the fact that they form an essential part of a country’s economy. Their lives are worth nothing for the politicians and big-money corporations.

      1. justaweirdthought

        well…personally, I don’t think there is any hope for these people. Gone are the days when continuous struggle(like the french revolution)was something worth. Nowadays if someone talks of raising voice, he is compelled to shut up either by the government(which is the case with India) or by his own people. Everyone turns deaf and blind when a lower community asks for justice. The govt. might have plans to improve the conditions of such people but they are useless given the high corruption in almost all govt. offices.
        I would like to give an example of my own country. The government runs a scheme by the name of ‘MNREGA’, under which a person is guarenteed 100 days of employement and a monthly income of 100 indian rupees per day. The employment is generally physical labour kind. When this scheme was implemented in a small village in the north Indian state of Rajasthan, those employed, were asked to dig a long canal between their village and a nearby dam so as to get a reliable water source. The villagers worked in scroching heat, digging up the earth. At the end of one month, when it was time for getting their earnings, they were given 5 rupees each! When the villagers demanded their full payments, the officials said that they had dug the wrong way and threatened them that he will get them locked up in prison.(Indian villagers are really scared of prison and court matters).
        All in all, according to me, the MNREGA is itself not a proper scheme.There is a lot of corruption in its implementation. I think such schemes(somehow) encourage people not to get education while on the other side the govt. wants to promote literacy and education. In other words, schemes like MNREGA promote more un-skilled jobs and hence are a threat to a developing nation like India.
        As far as the developed nations are concerned, I think the govt there is too busy looking after the big-money industries, companies and corporates.
        The best that we can do for the lower economic sections of the society is to let them live.

  15. Caitlin~ I find it so easy to be outraged, heartsick, and feeling both the futility as well as the empowerment as I promise to make a (albeit) small change. (In fact, I’m hauling out the sewing machine this summer). I feel this way about so many things–the ivory trade fueling the decimation of elephants for Asian fashionista bling–all the sheer waste and destruction left in the wake of rampant consumerism. The biggest problem is the disconnect that consumers have when they (we) are hellbent to satisfy them(our)selves with “stuff.”
    Thanks for posting this.

    1. Yogagurl

      I hate to break it to you, as a fellow sewer, are you sure your fabric is made in the USA? Again, I think only the expensive stuff is.

      1. Well, most of my fabric is vintage, so hopefully it is. But–good point! Choosing our battles is a challenge–landmines everywhere. My boyfriend tries to reassure me, when I get all upset about these issues (and so many more) “we’re the ‘good guys.'” I try.

      2. It’s very challenging when we are at the very tail end of a long supply chain to know how or what we can do to improve the lives of the people at its very start.

  16. I think Americans and westerners in general are very susceptible to taking the blame for these disasters in other countries. We seem to have this general feeling of guilt and responsibility for what happens to others but we have been happily buying lightbulbs and appliances for years from work outsourced to Mexico where living conditions and wages are still terrible. I agree that our companies who use cheap foreign laborers working in dangerous conditions should check out the manufacturers first and some do but the corruption of factory owners and politicians in these countries is well known. They are the ones ultimately responsible for their own workers and citizens. We want to improve people’s lives but I think we have found out from all our good intentions in Iraq and Afghanistan that people resent our interference and that change comes from within, if it is wanted. No question we should advocate for these workers and pressure the factory owners but human life is so cheap in third world countries that it is difficult to persuade the powerful that it is in their best interest to value their citizens.

    1. Well, we do happily keep buying the cheap products made on the blood of these workers. And they are almost all being produced for “all-American” stores like Penney and WalMart.

      I take your point, but waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to me (in some ways) a different subject. There are certainly economic problems in both countries, but the U.S.’s interest in them is more political (fighting the Taliban and Islamic militants) than economic. The argument has been made that the poor are more likely to become suicide bombers….that’s beyond my expertise and the scope of this post.

      1. I agree the wars are a different subject but the need to change and improve comes from that same American idealism and democratic drive to change things that we can’t change. I do not know what pressure can be brought upon big clothing chains to negotiate with subcontractors that either you meet our safety, health and God forbid, wage standards, or we do not do business with you.

  17. Well, people are doing something about it here in the UK. At the flagship shop of Primark a cheap clothing empire there were hundreds of people demonstarting on Saturday about the Bangladeshi tradgedy. They are a principal customer of the workshops in the building. On their Facebook page Primark have had to make a statement about the issue. Social media is one way that hits the retailers hard. They can lose thousands of customers over night if they do not respond to the situation properly.

    Primark have now set up a relief fund for the survivors. A consortium of British clothing retailers are going out there to talk with the Bangladeshi government about building safety.

    It is hard to boycot garments made in the developing world because there are almost no alternatives. Everything is outsourced. There are local clothes makers but they are bespoke, and expensive and in short supply.

    There is progress, this story has hit hard round the world and consumers are demanding better. At one time, no one would have cared very much. All change comes from the bottom up. That’s us. Demand better of the retailers and it will work it’s way up.

    Trickle up economics perhaps.

    1. Fantastic news! Thanks very much for making the time to share all these details.

      I agree entirely that it’s up to us to demand change. I wonder if anyone picketed JC Penney. Sadly, I doubt it.

      1. Recently, Starbucks in the UK was outed by the occupy movement. Despite operating here for over 13 years, during that time they have shown no profit and therefore they didn’t have to pay any tax to the UK Government. Starbucks managed this by paying all their would-be pofits to Starbucks in Luxembourge for royalties on the Starbucks brand.

        At a time of Austerity people wre incensed. Starbucks were even hauled before a comittee of MPs – live on TV and grilled about their activities.

        One member asked Starbucks why is it hat in 13 years you have never turned a penny profit, yet you have just given your COE a 20% pay rise – is that normal business practice to reward failure?

        Their Face book page had – when I last looked – 148,000 messages from people all basicvally saying – “Pay your Taxes” They have now offered the government a token £20m. They did that because of public pressure. That’s how it can work.

  18. chistanote

    The most famous and powerful brands such as Versace, Adidas and all other ones have their factories in poor countries like Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and many others. They do it on purpose, because in those mentioned countries there is not strong labor law, it means: to have millions of cheap workers, no benefit, no insurance, no retirement wages.. nothing, just receiving lowest possible amount of salary monthly

      1. Find out as much as you can about where the clothes are made that you’re buying…write to the company headquarters and tell them this issue is of great importance to you. Make everyone you know aware of the issue as well.

  19. Horrendous, heart breaking, and frustrating. I love the story above, about Starbucks and the UK. The question is, would/could something like that work here in the US? I’m not so sure. Too many who are blinded by those robbing them, and even more who might want to stick to principles, but can’t afford to. A complex problem that shouldn’t be ignored.

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