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Rana Plaza workers help launch T-shirt that fights sweatshops

Six years on from the Bangladeshi factory collapse, survivors help British activists launch a radical new brand that redefines ‘ethical fashion,’ writes GAVIN O’TOOLE

FROM the dust of the Rana Plaza garment factory that collapsed six years ago this week, killing 1,134 people, many of them garment workers, a new co-operative has emerged that is now working with British activists as part of a global solidarity project that challenges the sweatshops industry.

Survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster, among them seasoned Bangladeshi trade unionists, have formed a co-operative called Oporajeo — which means “invincible” in Bengali — and have teamed up with British anti-sweatshop campaign, No Sweat, to produce ethical T-shirts for the British market. More than just another ethical fashion accessory, these T-shirts actively fight sweatshops.

“We are creating a radical circular economy based on workers’ rights and campaigning activism,” said Jay Kerr, activist with No Sweat, a British-based grassroots campaign to end the use of sweatshop labour across the world.

We are importing blank T-shirts to Britain made in co-ops run by former sweatshop workers. In doing so we help them to build their business and escape the exploitation of the sweatshop industry, we then use the profits from the T-shirt sales to help fund unions defending the rights of other garment workers.”

Formed in 2000, No Sweat has spent years protesting outside flagship stores of major brands like Nike and Gap. It helped to expose the east London sweatshops used by Top Shop, and has raised thousands of pounds for workers fighting for their rights. 

Oporajeo and No Sweat are taking on worker exploitation in the fashion industry from the inside — by challenging the wholesale stranglehold of the big brands that turn a blind eye to abuses in the clothing supply chain.

The move marks a new departure in “ethical fashion” campaigns by responding to a belief that, while some socially conscious brands prioritise environmental issues, they often pay mere lip service to workers’ rights and consumers remain ignorant. 

The Rana Plaza disaster prompted a massive exercise in reputation management among the hundreds of Western brands producing apparel in Bangladesh, and especially international giants like Zara, Mango, Benetton and Walmart that also produced clothing in Rana Plaza.

Sweatshops are common in Bangladesh, where four million garment workers, mostly women, toil in more than 5,000 factories to generate profits for a sector worth over £23 billion, which in turn forms part of the global $3 trillion textile industry.

But while some brands have become more transparent about where they produce, many garment workers still earn less than the minimum wage and are trapped in a cycle of poverty, where human rights abuses and dangerous conditions still persist in factories. 

The recent Spice Girls sweatshop scandal shows that even so-called ethical brands can’t guarantee that their products are sweatshop-free.

By sourcing T-shirts made in co-operatives like Oporajeo, No Sweat ensures its T-shirts are made by workers who control their own factories, taking decisions jointly and providing a powerful model of how the garment sector — long notorious for exploitation and bad conditions — could operate. 

Oporajeo workers earn a monthly 12,500 taka (£110) wage plus a 50 per cent share of profits which puts them close to the 16,000 taka living wage called for by trade unions and well above the new national minimum wage of 8,000 taka.

Workers also receive 100 per cent payment of all medical bills and education expenses for their children, and co-op profits are even starting to be used to fund local environmental projects.

Oporajeo’s success has upset a number of the local sweatshop bosses in Bangladesh, in 2015 its factory caught fire under suspicious circumstances — but true to its name the co-op has continued and gone from strength to strength.

Kazi Monir Hossain, one of the founders of Oporajeo, said: “All of us at Oporajeo are equal: we are workers and we make our decisions together and ensure we all benefit. Making clothes for No Sweat means our work can help other garment workers fight for their rights and share the benefits.”

No Sweat has already provided T-shirts to a number of bands, campaign groups and trade unions, including for the GMB’s recent Amazon campaign. 

For more information about No Sweat and its T-shirt project with Oporajeo visit www.nosweat.org.uk.

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