Bangladesh Building Collapse and other Garment Manufacturing Disasters
In Bangladesh building and health and safety codes are weak and poorly implemented. The Ministry of Labour’s Inspection Department who enforce Bangladesh’s Labour Act only have eighteen inspectors and assistant inspectors to monitor 100,000 factories in the Dhaka region.
Exactly five months earlier on November 24th 2012 there was an electrical fault at the nearby Tazreen garment factory causing a fire that killed approximately 125 people. Survivors report being told by supervisors that the fire alarm had gone off accidentally and to carry on working. Upon trying to escape once established that it was real fire, workers found that the exit had been locked from the outside. Local fire department operations director Maj. Mohammad Mahbub, stated "Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower." The number of these “accidents” is endless in April 2005, a building collapsed killing 75, another in February 2006 killing 18 and in June 2010 killing 25. So why has it come to the point where business owners are willing to risk the lives of their workers?
Although problems are not solely based in Bangladesh, it has become the second largest exporter of clothing in the world after China. There are over 4,500 garment factories operating in the rapidly urbanising country. Approximately 35,000 people move to urban areas every week. Clothing accounts for £13 billion of annual exports each year, and has become an even cheaper option than India and the leading exporter, China. Pressure from companies to continually provide more and more clothing at a lower cost drives factory owners to go to greater and greater lengths to get the clothing made as quickly and cheaply as possible. JC Penney, Benetton and Primark, Mango and Matalan were amongst the western brands using factories in the Rana Plaza building to manufacture their goods.
Clothing supply chains are some of the most convoluted in the world. Often manufacturers will use sub-contractors to produce the garments with a narrower profit margin, less money means less pay and even lower working standards. A label may think they have chosen a factory with higher health and safety standards but they are not always the ones producing the clothing. Many retailers have tried to outlaw the practise of sub-contracting, but it is a difficult process to manage when the supply chain is not transparent and pressure from western retailers drives factory owners to great lengths to produce vast amounts of good quality items on time.
The easy way out is often to suggest a boycott of such retailers, however the garment industry is one of the largest employers in these poorer developing countries. Monthly pay in the Bangladesh garment industry can be as little as 3000tk (£25). Yet this is considerably higher than salaries in rural areas, along with steadier hours, more job security and more independence for female workers. Taking the production away from these countries would just heighten problems they are already facing.
What can we do?
Pressure needs to be put on these larger retailers by consumers to provide a greater commitment to ethical initiatives such as Fair trade production methods, providing workers with an appropriate living wage, in Bangladesh there are calls for the minimum wage to be raised to 5000tk (£41) and transparent supply chains. There are a number of campaigns already in place. Ms Wanda’s 1% campaign calls for a minimum of 1% of profits to be invested in ensuring protection of garment workers human rights.
The campaign drawn up by the National Garment Workers’ Federation in Bangladesh and supported by The International Labor Rights Forum, Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label and War on Want is calling for all brands involved pay the victims and their families full compensation and to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.
There has already been some success with this campaign with retailers obviously feeling the pressure of the almost 70,000 strong petition. Primark has agreed to pay compensation to those affected by the Rana Plaza disaster, and is also calling for the other brands involved to do the same. However they stopped short of signing up to the safety agreement, stating that they are signed up to an equivalent plan on fire safety drawn up by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).
The ETI is a voluntary scheme setting out standards to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable workers. But what happens when the voluntary scheme is at odds with the targets to produce low cost goods. It begs the question if Primark is already a member of the ETI how were they still involved with a disaster on this scale? Having these principles in place is not a guarantee that they will be put in to practice.
John Hilary from War on Want believes “The responsibility lies with those who have power in the value chain ... They are the ones who dictate the terms and conditions under which these garments are created ...If companies like Primark really wanted to ensure that workers had safe, proper conditions in which to work, they could do so."
Another campaign "Pay Your T-shirt Tax" is raising funds to support Action Aid's 'Emergencies Action Fund' to provide relief and support for victims of the collapse on the ground.
The Ethical Fashion Forum also just launched a Bangladesh 24.04.13 Never Again campaign. A Value Chain Call to Action, they wish to co-ordinate a collaborative industry response, building on existing initiatives and collating ideas from all corners of the fashion industry, to focus on the practical and constructive steps that need to be taken to prevent further disasters.
Action must to be taken before any further atrocities are left to happen. It relies on calls of the consumers to rally the multi-national retailers to act on their ethical values and not just make promises they won’t keep.
The responsibility also lies with consumers in changing their retail habits. One of the most devastating thoughts is that these low cost fast fashion items that factory workers are making often only get worn once or not at all, in the UK alone over 1 million tonnes of clothing goes into landfill each year. When put into context the suffering that the garment workers go through to produce low cost fashion items for the western market to just throw away is sickening. Every single item of clothing we buy will have been made by a person. One of the key Marxist ideas on commodity fetishism is that the labour and working conditions that go into a product are made invisible to the consumer. This needs to change. Fast fashion garments are so easily consumed with no realisation of the work that has gone into them or quite often the people that have suffered to make them.
We can stop this by making considered fashion choices and not buying clothes we will only wear once. If retailers were not under pressure to keep selling so many garments with rapidly changing styles they would not put such pressure on the suppliers, who then create these dangerous situations for the workers to reach their targets. Consumers need to be willing to pay a bit more for their clothing so they can be safe in the knowledge that the garment worker who made it was fairly paid and working in a safe environment.
There are many responsible retailers who are already acting ethically, People Tree for example produce their clothing in Bangladesh but offer an alternative model of production with no health risks and the workers are paid a fair wage. It is also notable that H&M has not been implicated in the latest scandals; they actually set up an education programme in 2008, to teach workers in Bangladesh about their rights. The ethical activities of these companies will hopefully inspire change in other big businesses.
Another important thing to do is donate clothing you longer want to wear to charity for someone else to enjoy. Buying things second hand omits the need for so many new products, not everything we use needs to be new, we can reuse and recycle. You could always embrace the handmade revolution and make your own clothing from ethically sourced fabric from suppliers like Offset Warehouse, that way you know who has made your clothes and know that no one has suffered to make them.
(A.M. Ahad/AP Photo)