By Annemarie Strassel
The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh evoked iconic moments in labor history when primarily young, female participants in the garment industry suffered and organized for their lives. Today, the chain of young, female, often migrant labor stretches from the ruined factories of Bangledesh to global style centers like New York and London, where legions of underpaid or unpaid interns, models, and other workers form a creative underclass. In the United States, many have few or no protections under the National Labor Relations Act. And unlike factory workers, the creative side of the industry is just beginning to organize. Both sides are working to close the geographic and conceptual space dividing fashion and labor.
In September 2013 Nautica’s Spring 2014 runway show was interrupted by an unusual coalition of models and Bangladeshi garment workers, protesting the company’s failure to sign a factory safety accord backed by Calvin Klein, Zara, and other major labels. Spearheading the effort was Kalpona Akter, a former child factory worker turned executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Sara Ziff, the head of Model Alliance, an advocacy organization for models.
“At first glance the runways of New York and the factories of Bangladesh couldn’t look farther apart, and yet we are all working in the same industry—the fashion industry—which is a $1.5 trillion business, where the work is overwhelmingly performed by young women and girls,” says Ziff. “We all work under different socioeconomic conditions. We work in the same industry. We’re all trying to assert our rights in a hostile labor environment, and we all want to have a voice in our work.”