On April 24, 2013, a building in Bangladesh known as Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,129 people and injuring 2,515. Rana Plaza housed several garment factories, in which workers – including children – were employed in manufacturing clothing for a variety of brands, including The Children’s Place, Benetton, and Walmart. The collapse triggered a wave of collective shock and outrage throughout the developed world as people were faced with the reality that working conditions in Bangladesh were poorly regulated, often dangerous, and beset with bribes, graft, and abuse.
At the time of the collapse, the minimum wage for Bangladeshi workers was $38 a month. Following the collapse, international pressure and a series of worker strikes led the Bangladeshi government to raise the minimum wage to $68 a month, beginning on December 1, 2013. The real shock to many people in countries like the United States was having to face the fact that the reason we are able to buy $10 t-shirts and $19 jeans is because workers in places like Bangladesh make the equivalent of 39 cents an hour – and that’s assuming a standard 40-hour work week. In reality, Bangladeshi workers can labor for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Of course, the cost of living in Bangladesh is much lower than it is in most parts of the world – but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that this is truly a living wage.
I bring this up not because I have a solution for the wage slavery taking place in much of the economic periphery – I don’t. I bring it up because I think it’s important for people to have perspective. To that end, I offer the story that made me decide to rant about this topic. ABC news broadcast a story about a new trend in children’s clothing: renting clothes instead of buying them. On the face of it, I think this is a terrific idea. The company offers parents the chance to pay a fee to rent clothes for special events such as weddings instead of having to pay full price for an outfit that will probably only be worn by their child once, and which they will outgrow soon in any case. Great! Sounds like a wonderful way to reduce our impact! But here’s where I got fired up: the company in question, Borrow Mini Couture, only rents high-fashion clothing. They carry brands such as Moschino, Roberto Cavalli, John Galliano, and Fendi – brands that charge hundreds of dollars for a single piece of children’s clothing. The least expensive Roberto Cavalli dress on the website retails for $352 – and it’s sized for a one year old girl. You can rent it for five days for $98 – $30 more than the monthly minimum wage of a Bangladeshi garment worker.
The ABC piece makes it sound like this company is a boon to parents who want to save money. That very idea makes me want to weep. It’s not about saving money. It’s about aspirational parents being able to say they dressed their tot in couture clothing. Now, I don’t know where these couture brands manufacture their clothes, but that’s not really the point. Even if they are made by workers who are employed in safe, well-regulated factories where they earn enough to make a dignified living, what does it say about us as a society that we would even consider paying hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for a single piece of our own clothing, much less the clothes for our kids? And what does it say about us that there are people who will spend $50 to $100 just to briefly rent a status symbol for their child (or more accurately, for themselves)?
For the shift in perspective I wish to impart in this rant, I offer this 2-minute video produced by the Toronto Star of children working in the garment industry in Bangladesh. Juxtapose this video with the ABC story and, like me, you might just want to weep – and I hope, want to think about what this means for the world we live in.