On April 24th, 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a building collapsed, killing around 1,130 people and injuring more than 2,400. Rana Plaza, however, was also the venue of a garment factory, which, with its sweatshop-like conditions, underpaid and overworked the (vastly impoverished and often underage) people working in them. On the morning of the collapse, the building was filled with individuals working under such conditions, making products for American clothing companies. According to Public Radio International’s Bruce Wallace, “You can still find clothing labels with familiar names like JC Penney and Joe Fresh in the rubble” two years after the collapse.
While it took the lives and limbs of the workers for the world to notice the atrocious conditions in which they labored, this moral awakening was short-lived. Clothing corporations were back to making profits in full stride a few weeks after the collapse, and communities of the west went back to ignoring the human rights abuses caused by sweatshops and their owners.
A few days ago, John Oliver recorded a segment on his show that depicted the reality of fast fashion and its effects on those who have to make the clothing that is sold at astoundingly cheap prices to the American market. He also pointed out how easy it is to forget this particular issue. Partly, our physical distance from the areas in which these sweatshop factories exist fuels some of the apathy, but the real problem stems from a unilateral compromise we have made with our consciences.
Many activists who do engage with issues of human rights abuses within their movements do so with the understanding that the position they have chosen does not guarantee financial durability. Grassroots activism is the slow, tough fight that is usually considered the antithesis of any high-income job. The conversation then tends to surround the opportunity cost of activism: money.
Activists agree to fight the good fight, to learn and educate about various issues. When the conversation surrounds sweatshops, however, an interesting paradox arises, making it nearly impossible to support the eradication of these atrocious working conditions. On one hand, sweatshops promote and maintain gross human rights violations. On the other, stores that employ such methods of production have cheaper prices, prices activists can afford. These low prices are incredibly enticing, for practicality reasons, yet also because we crave cheap fashion. It allows us to consume more, every season, when our recently bought clothes become quickly outdated.
The near impossibility of overcoming this paradox leads to a moral conundrum, making liberals attached to other causes avoid the fight against sweatshop labor. This is not to say no one is having the conversation; just that not enough people are having the conversation enough. And yet, for some activists, buying clothes from these corporations is not a choice. The good fight does not pay well.
In this particular case, the conversation about Rana Plaza dried up because the alternative was too bleak. Not everyone can afford the luxury of sticking by their morals at all times. However, without this change, a change that presumably will not occur at the level of the corporations, desperate workers in South Asia as well as other parts of the world continue to labor in these conditions. The first step is recognizing how easy it was to forget the tragedy of Rana Plaza.