Asian garment factories are struggling to keep up with the relentless global appetite for cheap clothes, but Tuomo Poutiainen is convinced that sweatshops will soon be a thing of the past. “In 10 years, the time of sweatshops will be over,” says Poutiainen, a United Nations expert on the industry. “There is so much attention and visibility on this subject. Transparency means there’s no space for sweatshops and substandard conditions, there’s plenty of eyes to report them. Twenty years ago it was easy to hide in these situations.”

The Asian garment factory industry is worth more than US$600 billion a year, with the likes of Bangladesh and Cambodia relying on it for more than 75 per cent of their exports. Many of the 60 million who work in the garment industry are still poorly paid, earning US$100 a month or less in the newly emerging cheap labour nations of Ethiopia and Myanmar.

It is an industrial juggernaut that has frequently broken trading laws and safety standards – something that has often proved fatal for workers. On April 24, 2013, a five-storey building called the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,134 and injuring more than 2,500 people working in the factories and shops within it. It was one of the worst industrial accidents ever, and the wake-up call the industry needed.

“It was a major shock to Bangladesh as a country, as it is so reliant on the garment industry, it provoked soul searching within government, suppliers and buyers. It was the birth of the reform agenda in the country’s garment industry,” says Poutiainen, who is head of quality and factory services for the International Labour Organisation’s [ILO] Better Work Campaign, which is funded by the UN.

Slave husbands of Hong Kong: the men who marry into servitude

Governments and brands took collective responsibility and set up the Bangladesh Accord of Fire and Safety in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to monitor safety conditions. Now two million workers are covered by the accord. Companies such as H&M and Zara have been involved in improving standards in buildings. The ILO has been part of reforms across the whole of Asia, working with hundreds of factories.

“The industry implemented new laws and regulations, with the inspections of buildings and major safety initiatives between buyers and suppliers,” says Poutiainen. “Ten or 15 years ago, there were substandard working conditions; suppliers were subcontracting work out; buyers didn’t know where their goods were being made. We are now making considerable progress. Some of these measures take time because of how big the industry is, but that focus has to be maintained.

“You’ve now got international brands investing in favourable supplier relationships. You don’t buy from anywhere. You want to engage with them. You want assurances that bad things won’t happen. You now know the factory manager. You know the workers.”

Mostafiz Uddin, the CEO of Denim Expert – which makes clothes under its own brand and has also worked with Primark and the Arcadia Group, said the Rana Plaza disaster was a “significant turning point ... that united the whole industry towards a culture of safety and sustainability”. “[Since then] nearly four thousand factories have undergone robust safety inspections, almost 90 per cent of the safety flaws have been remediated, the government has revamped the entire department responsible for safety monitoring and workers are being educated on occupational safety issues.

How Hong Kong failed Madagascar’s domestic helpers

“We, the factories, have invested huge amounts of money in this transformation process. Now we can claim ourselves as one of the safest garment manufacturing nations in the world, not by word of mouth, but in a most transparent way. All the factory inspection reports are publicly available online. All these efforts have really brought results – in the last [two] years we have seen no deaths caused by fire, electrical or structural issues.’

Nevertheless, some NGOs say big brands are keeping sweatshop workers’ living standards unbearably low.

Clean Clothes Campaign is the largest global alliance of labour unions and NGOs fighting for the improvement of working conditions and empowering garment industry workers. Last month, it wrote a public letter to H&M claiming hundreds of thousands of its employees receive “poverty wages”. The Japanese brand Uniqlo also came under fire for supposedly refusing to pay millions owed to workers at a plant in Indonesia. “People woke up after the Rana Plaza collapse, wanting to do better. Initially, there was a rise in minimum wages and trade unions. That was the first year, then things went back to how they were. There’s been no change since. The only progress is building safety and that is local to Bangladesh’s accord,” says Christie Miedema, the campaign’s outreach coordinator.

In recent years, the number of fire and safety incidents has fallen. According to Bangladesh government statistics, in 2012 and 2013 – not including Rana Plaza deaths – there were 510 “fire incidents”, which resulted in 135 deaths. In 2015 and 2016, there were 143 incidents and no deaths.

But most NGOs say change has been slow, especially in countries whose gross domestic products are heavily reliant on the garment industry.

Reform advocate Sarah Labowitz, who set up the New York University Centre for Business and Human Rights, wrote a report on the Rana Plaza incident after a two-year investigation. Figures showed that there were more than a third more factories than previously assumed – 7,000, not 4,500 – and a million extra workers. Of the 3,425 inspections that took place post-tragedy, only eight factories passed their final inspections.

Every demand for higher wages is crushed ruthlessly
Christie Miedema, Clean Clothes Campaign

Consumption of cheap, disposable clothes is rising everywhere – the industry is worth more than US$3 trillion globally and rising each year – which puts even more pressure on garment workers and factories, while brands want their profits to remain untouched.

Governments are also becoming more callous with garment trade unions. In Bangladesh, union leaders have recently been imprisoned for organising peaceful worker protests against poor pay.

“Every demand for higher wages is crushed ruthlessly. Labour leaders were put in jail and this creates an atmosphere of fear. It is more difficult to make your point if there is a threat of prison,” says Miedema of Clean Clothes Campaign. “The garment industry hasn’t changed. What we are seeing is that if there is no binding commitment, no legal enforcement, a lot of what is being said is hot air. The only progress is building safety, but the price squeeze is hurting more. Mostly, it’s words and nice promises, but no action.”