Bangladesh Building Collapse
Charlie Ross, founder and Director of Offset Warehouse, says, “Because this has been so awful, it’s had a lot of press coverage. But there are plenty of other major incidents that haven’t. For example, last November an electrical fault at the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka caused a fire which killed 124 people. When they tried to escape, workers found that the exit had been locked from the outside. It’s just too terrible to imagine. We’re launching this campaign to raise awareness of just this type of practice, and also to send money to support the workers and their families.”
Ross continues, “The sad fact, though, is we see these things happen, think, ‘Oh dear, that’s dreadful,’ and then forget about it. We don’t give any thought to how our lives are connected to these workers. We have to understand they’re not just faceless people halfway around the world. They are the workers who produce the cheap, fast fashion we in the west demand on a day-to-day basis. Because of that we have a responsibility towards them. We can’t continue to ignore their working conditions, because as long as we do, tragedies will keep on happening.”
So how has it come to the point where business owners are willing to risk the lives of their workers?
Although problems are not happening solely 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 this 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 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, Primark, Mango and Matalan were among the western brands using factories in the collapsed Rana Plaza building to manufacture their goods.
As Ross says, “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 better health and safety, but they are not always the ones producing the clothing. Many retailers have tried to outlaw the practice of sub-contracting, but it’s a difficult process to manage when the supply chain is not transparent and pressure from western retailers means factory owners cut corners.”
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). But 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.
So 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 Fairtrade production methods, which provides workers with an appropriate living wage. In Bangladesh there are calls for the minimum monthly wage to be raised to 5,000tk (£41) and for more transparent supply chains.
There are a number of campaigns already in place which are drawing attention to this. 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 to pay the victims and their families full compensation and to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire & Building Safety Agreement.
There has already been some success with this campaign, with retailers obviously feeling the pressure of the almost one-million-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 already signed up to an equivalent plan on fire safety drawn up by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).
The ETI is a voluntary scheme which sets 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 that if Primark is already a member of the ETI, how were they still involved in a disaster on this scale? Having these principles in place isn’t always a guarantee that they will be put into practice.
Another campaign, Pay Your T-shirt Tax, is raising funds to support Action Aid's Emergencies Action Fund, to provide relief and support on the ground for victims of the Bangladesh collapse.
Ross believes, “The responsibility really lies with those who have power in the supply and value chain – and that includes production, marketing - and us as consumers! We are the ones who can dictate how our garments are created. And if retailers really wanted to ensure their workers were safe, they could do so.
“Action must be taken before any further human tragedies are allowed to happen. And the onus is on the consumer to rally the multi-national retailers to act on their ethical values, and not just make promises they won’t keep.
“At Offset Warehouse we think it’s important for consumers to understand the impact their fashion choices have on other people. A striking realisation of the tragedy in Dhaka is that we’re more than likely to be wearing an item of clothing made by someone who died on that day.
“This is one of the things we’re hoping to achieve with the “Still Alive” campaign – to help people understand the role we as western consumers play in disasters like this. We’re calling on consumers to take responsibility for their actions, hitting home the fact that our continual mass consumption of cheap goods is threatening – and even taking – the lives of our fellow human beings.”
All the profits raised from the T-shirt sales will be donated to garment workers' worldwide.
The T-shirt bears the slogan “The person who made this T-shirt is still alive”. It’s a quality tee made in an ethically safe working environment by workers who were paid a fair wage, and is printed with water-based inks. It’s certified by WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production) certificate no: 10022, REACH (Registration, Evaluation & Authorisation of Chemicals) certificate no: 26219, Sedex (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange), and Control Union (a global network of inspection operations), it costs less than a fiver and no lives were put at risk to make it.
“Which just goes to prove,” says Ross, “it’s perfectly possible to buy an item of clothing which has been ethically made, is of good quality, looks great and doesn’t cost a fortune.”
In addition to the retailers upping their game, considerable power also lies with consumers, because they can change their retail habits. One of the most devastating thoughts is that these low-cost, fast-fashion items often only get worn once - or not at all. And in the UK alone, over one million tons of clothing goes into landfill each year. When put into context, the suffering that the garment workers go through to produce these 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 far too easily consumed and discarded, with no understanding and appreciation of the work that has gone into them – or quite often the people that have suffered to make them.
We can stop all this right now by making considered fashion choices and not buying clothes we will wear only once. If retailers weren’t under such pressure to keep up with rapidly changing styles, they wouldn’t pass these pressures on the suppliers, who then create dangerous environments in which workers have to reach their targets. Consumers need to be willing to pay a bit more for their garments and wear them for longer, so they can be safe in the knowledge that the worker who made it was fairly paid and working in a safe environment.
“There are many responsible retailers who are already acting ethically,” says Ross. “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’s also notable that H&M has not been implicated in the latest scandals. In 2008 they actually set up an education programme 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 we can do is donate clothing you no longer want to wear to charity for someone else to enjoy. Buying things second-hand reduces the need for so many new products. Not everything we use needs to be new; we can reuse and recycle.
Or how about following the example of the BBC’s recent hit The Great British Sewing Bee and having a go at creating your own clothing? If you purchase your fabric from somewhere like Offset Warehouse, you can be sure that it has been sourced from ethically-sound suppliers. Then you will know exactly where your clothes have come from, how the fabric was made, who has benefitted - and that no one has suffered or died so you can wear the latest fashion.
CONTACT: Offset Warehouse