In April of 2013 in Bangladesh, an eight story sweatshop factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers and wounding over 2,000. 16 international companies were producing clothing in this factory – the most famous of the companies being J.C. Penny, Walmart, Joe Fresh, Gap, H&M, Benetton and The Children’s Place. These are not the only large, international companies that take advantage of poverty abroad and cheap labor, and Bangladesh is not the only city in the world where workers are being abused, payed disgustingly low wages and forced to work in dangerous conditions by multi-national companies. The worst part? Take a look at the tags on your clothing – where was your shirt made? And your pants? As much as it is comforting to think that child labor and sweatshops are a theme of the past, it is still happening right now. 1,100 people were killed in Bangladesh in 2013, but the media didn’t make a peep. Have things changed since then? Most definitely not.
Documentary photographer Larry Towell visited Bangladesh after the collapse of the factory, determined to document smaller factories/sweatshops in the surrounding areas that produced clothing (check out his work here). He found and documented a lot of child labor, as he found children as young as ten years old working for free under ‘training contracts’. Not only are child labor laws are not enforced in countries like Bangladesh, where the garment industry is 80% of the country’s exports, but all workers are forced to work 12-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, yet getting paid only $2.00-$2.50 a day.
Towell describes in his artist statement how multinational companies aim to keep a low-profile on the abuse that occurs in their factories abroad. For example, he discusses that the outsides of the factories look well cared for, and companies provide censored and guided tours for any press. In other words, they hide the reality of clothing production from their consumers.
In Towell’s work on Magnum’s website, it is heart-wrenching to see young children working, not to mention working in such dangerous, dirty and cramped spaces. The sweatshops in which the fabric industry resides are not only buildings where people work, but where people sleep, bathe and eat. Machines are old and tools are rusty; and fabric is piled up high, making these spaces extreme fire hazards. Towell’s work also includes portraits of individuals or groups of people who lost friends and family in the 2013 factory collapse. In the descriptions, Towell briefly tells their stories – exemplifying poverty and much love for their lost loved ones.
To me, this is seriously concerning and extremely wrong. Clothing is unarguably a necessity, and the fact that companies are taking advantage of impoverished people in countries were labor laws are not enforced, and then selling the American public clothing whilst withholding information about clothing production from the media and consumers is simply unethical. Two years ago, 1,100 people died and the world said absolutely nothing. As consumers and human beings, I feel that it is our ethical responsibility to raise awareness of situations like these – sweatshops in countries like Bangladesh, China, India and Korea are dangerous, abusive and wrong.