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Our world in 90 seconds

Ignoring the human price others pay for our cheap clothes is not moral

Rescue workers try rescue trapped garment workers in the Rana plaza building in 2013.

Rescue workers try rescue trapped garment workers in the Rana plaza building in 2013.

It took less than 90 seconds to graphically reveal the horrific underbelly of globalisation and of ‘modern’ consumerism and business.

In April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring an additional 2,500.

For many locals and trade unions, the event was deemed as mass industrial homicide. Rana Plaza contained clothing factories, a bank, apartments and several shops and while the latter (on the lower ground floors) were immediately closed following the discovery of cracks in the building, no such action was taken with clothing factories.

The reaction to the collapse and the subsequent court case fuelled action when about 250 companies accepted two agreements an Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.Continuing to ask crucial questions and insisting on minimum standards in the supply chain is an easy and practical thing we can do

These agreements were designed to significantly improve safety in the estimated 2,300 factories which supplied western brand names. Judging by local reactions to the impact of the agreements, they have made a real difference. The fear of losing contracts from western buyers forced thousands of factory owners to invest in fire doors, sprinkler systems, electrical upgrades, stronger foundations, and so on.

Fewer factories can now be labelled as ‘death traps’ according to the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labour group.

According to a 2018 report from the Stern Centre at New York University, approximately 71 workers died each year in fire and building collapses before April 2013 but in the following years, the number has been reduced to 17 people annually (the figures are disputed with many arguing they are significantly higher and remain substantially unreported).

Progress in work and safety conditions in an estimated 2,000 plus factories (and in those of some 3,000 plus sub-contractors) that do not supply major western brands and are not covered by the agreements remains problematic. Inspection procedures are either very weak or non-existent. The garment industry remains vital to Bangladesh (the world’s second largest clothing exporter after China).

The industry has contributed significantly to a reduction in absolute poverty for many and employs some five million of the world’s lowest-paid garment workers.
However, many thousands more workers still work in sub-contracting workshops, often supplying markets in countries such as Russia and Turkey.

Their actual number and the conditions of their employment remain largely unknown.

However, the agreements made following April 2013 are now set to expire. The good news is that international awareness and pressure have ensured that some 176 of the 220 companies in the accord have signed an extension extension (including H&M, Zara and Primark).

The bad news is that about 250 factories supplying western brands would no longer be in the agreement. Companies like IKEA remain outside the agreement preferring to comply with their own in-house code which does not make its reviews public.

Despite this, there are growing concerns about both agreements as they remain behind agreed implementation schedules, due mostly to outright opposition from many factory owners. One accord update recently reported that "major, life-threatening concerns remain outstanding in too many factories and need to be fixed urgently".

Demands and action from workers seeking better wages and conditions continue to be met with harassment and violence. Bangladesh has continued to receive harsh criticism from the International Labour Organisation for failing to protect trade unions.

International brands including Zara and H&M have boycotted garment industry meetings in protest at the treatment of workers and the crackdown on unions. As competition increases from garment sectors in Vietnam and Ethiopia, these threats by western buyers are significant but Bangladeshi factory owners complain that such brands want it both ways – insisting on safety improvements while simultaneously demanding lower prices.

The amount western brands pay for men’s cotton pants, for example, has fallen by an average 13 per cent since 2013.

Ensuring the progress to date under the two agreements is sustained remains a challenge not just for Bangladeshis but also, crucially, for consumers of branded products manufactured there.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association insists it is now time to end the agreements and international monitoring in particular but the obvious danger is that if supervision becomes weak, it could be a case of ‘business as usual’ with significant human consequences.

Reports from the Washington based network Global Labor Justice continue to highlight physical and sexual abuse of workers.

Those 90 seconds in April 2013 revealed just one of the ugliest dimensions of a globalised garment and fashion industry – something we have all become aware of, even if we routinely refuse to act on it at the point of sale.

Ignoring the human price others pay for our cheap clothes is not a credible or moral stance. The response to the 2013 tragedy highlights how industry, spurred on by consumer sentiment can has made a difference to the lives of some of the world’s poorest. It is a real daily definition of the word ‘solidarity’. Continuing to ask crucial questions and insisting on minimum standards in the supply chain is an easy and practical thing we can do.

Those 90 seconds highlighted the importance and impact of ongoing questioning and international consumer pressure.

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