The other day I finally managed to see “Clothes to Die For”, the excellent, harrowing BBC2 documentary about the disastrous collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh, which caused the death of 1,138 workers. I have been following the news about Rana Plaza, and subsequent initiatives to compensate victims and make Bangladeshi factories safer, since the day of the disaster. For me, Rana Plaza is the Chernobyl of the textile industry – a disaster so big and shocking that it might, just might, trigger real changes for the better in the global textile industry. One thing I particularly liked about the film was that it made it clear that jobs in the garment industry are much needed and wanted in Bangladesh – they just need to be decent, safe, properly paid jobs in buildings that don’t fall down on the workforce!
One of the new things I learnt from the documentary was what had triggered the building’s collapse on the day. I had been aware that Rana Plaza was a disaster waiting to happen because of shoddy and not-fit-for-purpose construction (the building was not planned for garment factories) and the non-permitted adding on of additional stories on top of the building. But what actually triggered its collapse on the morning of 24 April 2013? Turns out that the death knell for the building – and many people inside – was a power cut, which meant the building’s enormous generators kicked in, adding yet more vibration to the already ongoing vibration caused by the 1000s of whirring sewing machines. It reminded me of the fact that weaving sheds in 19th century Lancashire were typically single-storey, not only because of the need for natural light but – perhaps more importantly – because the weight and vibration of hundreds of tightly-packed power looms would make a multi-storey building collapse. I wonder how many buildings had to collapse before the single-storey weaving shed became the norm….
I have been wanting to make work about the Rana Plaza disaster for some time, and when the ‘Tangled Yarns’ exhibition came up it was clear to me that Rana Plaza would be one of the stories told through the works in the show. The big challenge I always face when making work inspired by a current event is how to find my own artistic language to explore these events. I am not a reporter, photographer or documentary filmmaker, and with the kind of slow, studio- based processes and media I like to use (eg textiles, paint, stitch) it would be pointless to try and ‘compete’ with the flood of shocking images and news coverage in the media.
Creating an aesthetically successful piece, and the process of making it, are just as important to me as telling a story. The work should be capable of engaging viewers from an aesthetic perspective, even those who don’t look for any narrative in art. And ideally, the work should also transcend the event/issue that prompted me to make it in the first place. In summary, the work should be accessible on several layers, offering different levels of engagement and discovery.
With Rana Plaza, what I found is that I wanted to make a memorial for all the workers who died. I desperately want something good to come out of this tragedy. Therefore it is important to me that these workers are not forgotten in the Western society I live in, where virtually everyone will be buying clothes made in Bangladesh at some point (check the labels in your clothes!), and where one headline- grabbing disaster is quickly displaced by the next one.
On a quick stroll through Walthamstow market and the adjacent charity shops I had no trouble finding clothes made in Bangladesh – and not just rock-bottom cheap ones, also more expensive brands. I bought a bag of clothes as ‘raw material’ for artworks, but quickly found these inappropriate for works that commemorate the Rana Plaza victims; I wanted something much more quiet, using white (the colour of mourning) and finding a way to make one mark for every worker who had died. I also experimented with incorporating some of the quotes from survivors, which my Bengali- speaking neighbours kindly wrote out for me in the beautiful Bengali script.
The clothes ended up in a separate, quite sculptural (but still wall-based) piece inspired by the chaos of the disaster site rather than the victims.
For me, the most significant development triggered by the Rana Plaza disaster was the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a legally binding agreement signed by over 170 apparel corporations from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia; two global trade unions, IndustriALL and UNI; and numerous Bangladeshi unions. Several NGOs such as the Clean Clothes Campaign are witness signatories. Among the corporate signatories you’ll find many brands familiar from UK high streets . The Accord commits corporate signatories to contribute real cash over several years to fund inspections, structural and safety improvements and safety training in Bangladeshi garment factories. Importantly, it also commits the companies to keep ordering textiles from Bangladesh i.e. not to abandon the country in this challenging time of (hopefully!) improving industry standards. It’s early days for the Accord; there are a lot of challenges such as ensuring workers continue to get paid if a factory has to be closed down whilst improvements are made (see e.g. this story in The Guardian), but it’s a start. What I really like about it is the transparency – all the 1500-plus factories that are being inspected are listed online on the Accord’s website with address and contact details, and the website also includes information on progress with the agreed corrective action plans to make the factories safer. So no fashion brand ordering from Bangladesh has the excuse anymore that they didn’t know what was going on. NB some North American companies have decided to set up a separate initiate, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which looks broadly similar at first glance but, importantly, does not include trade unions or NGOs as members and lacks the enforceability of the Accord.