Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality

It was Fashion Week in New York City, a time when the city’s glamour shines bright as models, designers and buyers from around the world flock to see the newest designs. Kalpona Akter stood near the fountain outside Lincoln Center, New York’s iconic performance space. Five months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the worst disaster in the history of the garment trades, a group of top-tier models were picketing and chanting: “Nautica, Nautica, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side.” Some carried photographs of injured Bangladeshi workers. “No one should die for fashion!” they shouted. “Nautica, don’t throw workers overboard! End death traps now: Sign the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord.”

Factory disasters were nothing new in Bangladesh. There had been hundreds of fires during the 21st century, claiming thousands of lives. But the Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24, 2013, had changed the global discussion. 1,134 workers were killed and 2,500 more injured. The scale of devastation—nearly ten times that of the Triangle Fire—had infused the fight for justice in the garment trades with fresh urgency.

As a result, 86 global clothing companies and retailers from twenty countries signed the accord in the first months after the disaster. Most of the signatories were Asian and European. It was a quantum leap in corporate accountability in the country that exports more garments than any except China. The accord allowed inspectors chosen by workers’ associations to inspect any factory for fi re and safety hazards. Signatories legally committed themselves to make all necessary repairs and, if they didn’t, opened the door to lawsuits in their home countries.

American companies were slow to sign and some never did. Many would agree only to voluntary inspections and repairs. The Florida farmworkers’ advocacy group Coalition of Immokalee Workers had done studies proving that inspections run by employers reveal little, that only worker-enforced safety codes like the accord substantively improve labor conditions. Still Walmart, Gap and other American apparel companies resisted.

To increase pressure on them, activists decided to crash Fall Fashion Week—the time when big buyers decide which lines to carry that year, and when labels are especially sensitive to bad press. The target of the models’ protest, VF Corporation, was among the biggest apparel companies in the world, and it had not signed the accord.

VF manufactures high-end sportswear for Nautica, Jansport, Timberland, Lee, Wrangler, Vans, the North Face and Reef. It is not a fast-fashion producer. That was the point that Nautica’s lead model, Sara Ziff, wanted to make when she organized the models’ protest. Killing conditions are not restricted to factories making inexpensive clothing for mass distribution. They are endemic to 21st-century garment work.

 Ziff was radicalized by the Rana Plaza collapse. Afterward, she traveled to Bangladesh, met Akter and interviewed survivors. “As the faces of the fashion industry,” Ziff said, “models are in a unique and powerful position to promote decent working conditions not only for themselves but also for the women who make the clothes that we wear.” Models picketing Fashion Week chanted: “Exploitation is not a good look.”

The scale of the carnage after the Rana Plaza collapse struck workers, consumers and activists worldwide, evoking horror and sparking anger. Pressured by their customers, hundreds of companies soon signed the accord. Akter and survivors convinced President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress to end preferential trade status for Bangladesh. In February 2014, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met to consider restoring Bangladesh to the status of preferred trading partner. Akter traveled to Washington to try to dissuade them, and to push for a bill requiring that clothing sold in the U.S. be produced in safe factories with decent working conditions.

Dressed in a handmade Bangladeshi sari, Akter told her story to the Senate. How she had started sewing clothing for the U.S. market at 12 years old and earned $10 a month for 450 hours of labor. How as a teenage union activist, she had been beaten and teargassed. And how she had been arrested by the Bangladeshi government, charged with crimes she did not commit. In 2012, her friend and fellow organizer Aminul Islam was tortured and murdered—by police, Akter believes. Since that time, she and other garment union leaders have been under constant surveillance by Bangladeshi security forces.

The hearing room was silent as she spoke. Akter admitted that preferential trade status had been a big boon to the Bangladeshi apparel industry and to the global clothing brands who profited mightily from manufacturing in a country where workers were paid so little. And it was true that labor conditions had improved somewhat after Rana Plaza. But Akter urged the senators not to renew trade privileges until factories in Bangladesh were truly safe and garment workers free to organize without retribution. That was not yet the case.

Reba Sikder, a slight eighteen-year-old survivor of Rana Plaza, testified next. She looked weary, a little dazed and not a day over 14. Sikder wore a striped hoodie sweatshirt to ward off the chill of a damp D.C. winter. In 2013, she had worked 14-hour days for $49 a month. She couldn’t afford to miss work, even for a day, she said, though she had noticed cracks spreading through the walls of the Savar building. And she knew that older workers were worried.

When Sikder arrived for work on April 24, 2013, she saw her colleagues milling outside, hesitant to enter. One worker pointed to rubble by the doors. The building foundation appeared to be dissolving. Then Sikder heard the boss yell: “You bloody people… if you don’t go inside, you won’t get your salary.” Workers nervously filed in. Sitting at her sewing machine, Sikder could feel the building shake. But the bosses wouldn’t let anyone leave. When the walls collapsed around her, Sikder was hit by debris and knocked unconscious.

The teen woke to the sound of people crying, but she could not see anything. She lay trapped under rubble for three days, scratching a tiny opening through which she called for help. Then rescuers’ hands were on her, inching her toward the light. “I saw many injured and dead workers,” she says. Many surgeries later, she still suffers daily pain. Her bones never healed properly. Nor has her heart or her mind. And yet she knows she is lucky.

Garment workers understand that their bosses in Bangladesh don’t care if they are hurt or killed, Sikder said, looking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the eye. But she didn’t think American consumers or corporations cared either. “I don’t think they think about us,” she said in English. “If people and brands would think about us, the people who are making their clothes, we would not die.”

Some in the room had tears in their eyes. “You all wear clothes that were made in Bangladesh,” she said. “Thousands shouldn’t die just for coming to work. Please think about the workers who have lost their limbs, their feet and their hands and about the families who have lost sons and daughters, wives and husbands.” She took a breath. “Please think about their pain.”

Sikder’s story touched California congressman George Miller, who asked to meet with her privately. Afterward, he released this statement: “The apparel industry has created millions of jobs for Bangladeshi women. But your job should not cost you your life. We must call out the clothing brands that manufacture irresponsibly in Bangladesh.” Otherwise, he said, “their clothing labels may as well read: ‘Made with Violence Against Women.’”

On June 1, 2014, six months after a garment workers’ protest in Phnom Penh ended in smoke and blood when police shot into the crowd, 150 Cambodian garment workers staged a fashion show. They advertised on wall posters around the city. Over pictures of the latest fashions, jagged words were splashed: “Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality.”

Months after killing five garment workers and wounding forty, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had not lifted its ban on demonstrations. Before the crackdown, workers had been protesting by the hundreds of thousands for a living wage. But to do so now would be very dangerous. Garment worker-activists sidestepped the ban by announcing a fashion show. Performances did not require a permit. Police watched but did not intervene.

On a rare day off, workers busied themselves assembling a catwalk at United Sisterhood Alliance, a feminist NGO active in Phnom Penh since the early 2000s. The large first floor opened onto a leafy street in the city’s diplomatic quarter. The models—women in their twenties and thirties—applied dramatic makeup, fit their feet into killer heels and donned clothes they never could have afforded if they’d had to pay market prices. American and European house music blared; pink and white lights pulsed.

The show opened with a piece called “Crackdown Hip-Hop.” Four young male dancers performed a Cambodian version of an African American street dance known as “krumping.” Crack. The sound of gunshots filled the air.

The stage darkened, then relit. Music throbbed. Women workers strutted defiantly to the Swedish hit “I Love It.” The workers-turned-models posed in the dresses they spend their lives sewing. Logos for Old Navy, H&M, Gap, Nike, Levi’s and other companies were projected onto their faces and bodies. Each carried two-foot-long hundred-dollar bills. 

As cameras flashed, the women stopped, then theatrically ripped up the hundred-dollar bills. Torn pieces floated into boxes labeled Rent, Electricity, Water, Medical Care, Food. At the final box, the women held up empty hands. Cambodian garment workers live on as little as 150 calories a day, says union leader Roth Minea. “Feeding themselves is the one expense they can cut,” he said. “And they do, day after day.” 

Some held placards displaying annual company profits: Gap—$6.2 billion; Old Navy (owned by Gap)—$6.6 billion; Nike—$30.6 billion. Others held cards showing CEO salaries: Ralph Lauren, $24 million; Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, $25.6 million; Nike CEO Mark Parker, $47.6 million. And finally, one displayed the net worth of Nike chairman Phil Knight: $22 billion. 

Models in Puma, Nike and Adidas sneakers that sell for over $100 in the U.S. and Europe carried signs showing the minimum wage for garment workers in Cambodia: $140 a month—under $2,000 a year. Workers had fought for years for that wage. Some had died.

Sok Thareth said she organized the show to illustrate the vast profits that multinationals make on the sweat of garment workers. Their gains should be shared more equitably with the women who make their products, she said. H&M announced before the show that it would pay suppliers more so they could raise Cambodian workers’ wages. Sok scoffed. “They have yet to deliver. 

The show changed scenes fast. Women rushed onstage wearing red head scarves, white T-shirts and jeans. Their signs decried the injustices they’d endured: “Job Insecurity.” “Poor Ventilation.” “Sexual Harassment.” “Pregnancy Discrimination.” More women ran out, circling anxiously. Their headbands said only $160. Garment workers had died six months earlier wearing the same: a simple statement of the monthly minimum wage they were demanding.

Then came men carrying toy guns. The music stopped. The women turned to face the men. They raised their fists. Red and white lights flashed. Gunfire sounded and workers fell to the ground. The room went dark.

When the lights came back on, women workers stood behind the podium wearing orange or pink T-shirts that said in Khmer and English “People Before Profit.” They laid on the ground hand-lettered signs with their demands: “Dignity.” “Safer Conditions.” “A Living Wage.”

Twenty-three-year-old worker Hil Chandy spoke to the media. “Our unity will create a better path and society so that our children and our children’s children may be free from oppression, exploitation and inhumane treatment. The arrests, bans, threats and killing of our activists cannot prevent a workers’ movement. We still demand all buyers take responsibility to find a solution.” 

Then it was over. The women changed their clothes; piled two, three and four onto motorcycles, scooters and bicycles; rode back to tiny rooms they share near the factory districts. That night, as they do every night, they cooked whatever food they had that day on grills and propane burners in the open-air pathways between their cramped lodgings. They talked excitedly about their show and went to bed early.

Everyone had work the next morning.

Excerpted from “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages by Annelise Orleck (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.


Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of five books on the history of U.S. women, politics, immigration and activism—including Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. She lives in Thetford Center, Vermont.