Women’s Wear Daily, the most prominent news source for the retail industry, chose “the Bangladeshi apparel worker” as its 2013 Newsmaker of the Year, showing how much attention is now on the world’s second largest garment manufacturer after a year filled with tragedy.
The publication chose ex-J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson last year, and Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and France’s richest man, in 2011.
Factory disasters in Bangladesh have made headlines for years. A particularly brutal incident at the Tazreen Fashion factory was widely covered in November 2012. But the collapse of Rana Plaza this past April was the apparel industry’s worst catastrophe ever. The tragedy, which occurred on the outskirts of Dhaka, killed 1,132 people, and made the shockingly poor working conditions in the nation’s garment factories impossible to ignore.
According to WWD: “The tragedy stirred a global outcry and raised a fundamental question: What is the human price of cheap fashion?”
The fresh attention on the deeply pressured supply chains that make $8 jeans and $5 shirts possible, eye-opening for many consumers, has forced retailers to take a closer look at their business dealings in Bangladesh.
Retailers and unions have worked together to create legally enforceable labor standards for workers — though U.S. and European companies weren’t able to agree on a single set — and the government of Bangladesh is being pressured to improve regulations and laws for the industry. WWD says that while there is still a lot of work to be done, some improvements have been made, such as a recent agreement to raise the minimum wage to the equivalent of $68 a month from $38 a month. (That’s still below the entry-level wage for such jobs in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and Pakistan.)
Still, there is a high level of unrest in the nation given this year’s events.
Protests have been frequent and just weeks ago, workers, reportedly angry over a colleague’s death, burned down one of Bangladesh’s biggest garment factories. It was a supplier to Wal-Mart, Gap, American Eagle, and Zara, among others.
With the spotlight on the nation, though, the hope is that 2014 will bring more meaningful change to the lives of these workers.
Bangladesh is the second biggest maker of textiles after China. The industry accounts for 80% of the country’s exports and provides work for 3.8 million people, more than 85% of which are women.