by Laura Gildner
Tomorrow (April 24) is the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh, where 1,127 people died and over 2500 were injured (most of them women). I’m a Canadian feminist artist who’s made a sculpture referencing the injustices our globalized textile industry creates.
I’ve made a body bag solely out of used Joe Fresh clothing, suggesting to Joe Fresh that they use this design as a more realistic representation of what their business practices represent. Stitched within the bag are 1,127 stitches in orange, Joe Fresh’s signature colour, to represent each life lost on April 24, 2013.
The photos of the body bag are taken against a suburban landscape to highlight the privilege of the Western consumer (as the final stop in the lifecycle of a Joe Fresh garment before the dumpster) in relation to the poor working conditions those who make the garments must endure.
Here is my Artist Statement:
On April 24 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh where Canadian company Joe Fresh, among other globalized textile companies, outsourced their clothing to be manufactured and assembled collapsed. This devastation killed 1,129 factory workers and injured approximately 2500 others. Most of the workers in the factory were young women, and despite protests over growing cracks in the walls that had become noticeable the day before, workers were ordered into the building on the day of the collapse.
In October of 2013, less than six months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse, Joe Fresh debuted their new line of clothing (their first since the tragedy) at Toronto International Fashion Week. Cited by the company as “Asian-inspired,” Joe Fresh unabashedly paraded this fashion collection into the public eye, despite at the time having yet to initiate concrete plans to rectify their direct involvement with the deplorable working conditions that led to the Rana Plaza collapse or follow through with financial compensation to the families of the workers killed or injured in the devastation.
My goals in exhibiting this project are to single out Joe Fresh specifically and challenge the company to review their ethics, morals, and promises. Despite admitting to their involvement in adhering to the poor working conditions that led to Rana Plaza’s collapse, I feel Joe Fresh can do much more. While other globalized textile companies also had their clothing manufactured at the Rana Plaza factory and in my opinion are equally culpable in complying to and promoting the inhumane working conditions that led to the collapse, I am specifically targeting Joe Fresh as a Canadian citizen asking the only Canadian company directly involved in the devastation to set a better example for the globalized textile industry.
This body bag was made solely from used and disposed of Joe Fresh clothing sourced from thrift stores and friends closets. Many stitches on the body bag are visible to show that I cannot sew, because in being Canadian, it is much more cost-effective for me to purchase clothing made in overseas garment factories than to learn make clothing myself. This noticeable discrepancy between the factory workers skills and my own make visible the privilege of the Canadian consumer. I have sewn 1,129 stitches to this body bag in orange, Joe Fresh’s “signature colour” to represent each life lost in the Rana Plaza factory collapse.
I am suggesting to Joe Fresh that they take this design (provided to them at no charge) and produce replicas of the body bag instead of new clothing from their “Asian-inspired” fashion line as a more realistic representation of what Joe Fresh actually stands for.
I am asking them to rethink the term “Asian-inspired” and draw inspiration from their own authentic Asian experience. I am asking them to acknowledge that there is a human being- most often a female under the age of 18- responsible for each cut, button, and stitch that appears on their garments, and each person responsible for producing their clothing deserves the basic human rights of safe working conditions, fair wages, and respect. I am asking them to understand that although the clothing they produce is disposable and replaceable, the lives of those who make their clothing are not.
This is an opportunity for Joe Fresh and the other globalized textile companies who have outsourced through Rana Plaza to make a change that could transform the way globalized companies do business. Instead of just attempting to remedy the horrors of what happened at Rana Plaza with PR and financial compensation (should that happen), I challenge Joe Fresh to take a stand against the harsh and inhumane realities that globalization perpetuates and dare to change their practices into ones that make humanity and ethics (vs financial profit at any cost) a top priority. Many years from now, the Rana Plaza collapse could be looked upon not solely as a preventable tragedy that killed over a thousand people and highlighted the fatal (yet also preventable) injustices prevalent in an increasingly global economy, but a turning point in the globalized marketplace where genuine care and compassion for humanity became business values.
Though Joe Fresh can’t bring back the lives lost that day, they don’t have to continue the continual hypocrisy of their business practices. They have a choice – to honour those who died (so that Canadians could wear an $8 t-shirt for a month or two) by recognizing the irreplaceable value of human life and changing their practices so that worker exploitation becomes only a sad moment in their history (and in doing so influencing others in their industry); or they can carry on as usual. If the latter is the direction they choose to take, we might as well all be wearing body bags.
What Joe Fresh Can Do Better:
Simply signing an accord holds no concrete promise of immediately significant change for those working under poor conditions today. I fear that simply accepting and having faith that such an accord would completely solve the problem could collapse the many complex inequalities the globalized fashion industry creates. On top of this, injured workers are still awaiting compensation from the collapse, and funds created to help them are falling short.
I believe Joe Fresh can take initiative not only towards transforming the way Western clothing companies do business, but also make more of a profit by making humanitarian ethics a part of their image.
In addition to regularly, directly inspecting on-the-ground conditions in factories, I think it would be revolutionary for them to look at how they can reorganize their business model so that they could then pay factory workers more for their work. Purchasing the clothing they have outsourced at exceptionally low wholesale rates to sell at significantly higher retail prices suggests that the business side of the garment industry needs to change so that there isn’t such a long line of purchasing and re-selling between factory to store, and using the savings to pay workers more fairly.
I encourage Joe Fresh not to continue hiding from this tragedy but to show us – loudly – how they’re rectifying poor working conditions overseas.
I believe Joe Fresh and the other companies involved in this tragedy need to create an initiative in Bangladesh that would provide support (financial, medical, emotional) and opportunities for the future to those injured in the devastation, and subsequently start a campaign that would donate funds directly from their sales to towards this act. Humanitarian organizations are trying their best, but businesses such as Joe Fresh have the money, and thus the power to make the change.
Get information on how to share your thoughts with Joe Fresh (owned by Loblaws), here.
Editor’s Note: If you’re in the Vancouver area, there is a Rana Plaza anniversary action happening at The Children’s Place at Metrotown on the 24th. Get the information here. There will also be an art installation and vigil behind the Vancouver Art Gallery in the evening. If you know of other events taking place across Canada, please post in the comments below.