Over 1000 people died in the collapse of a factory in Dhaka which supplied clothes to the west for stores including Primark, Matalan and Mango. Two weeks later another 8 people were killed and more injured in a fire at another factory.
The garment industry is one of the biggest employers in Bangladesh and the most recent tragedy to hit the country has attracted a great deal of media attention. The inequality in the working conditions of the east and the west has never been a secret. But this disaster has shown the blatant lack of care for individuals who play an integral part in the profit of big companies.
The workers in the factory had reported to the management that the building was unsafe but their concerns were ignored. If their complaints had been taken seriously the deaths of so many innocent people could have been avoided. There has been a great deal of controversy over claims that workers were forced to work in unsafe conditions by factory owners who ignored large cracks in the walls.
It is hard for big companies to check each factory from which they source their goods but it is certainly not impossible. Often the laws on health and safety in countries like Bangladesh differ greatly to those that we have here. This said, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be okay with unsafe conditions just because it’s accepted in another country. For many of the garment workers, making clothes will be their only option and they’ll be grateful for the wage they get. This doesn’t mean that it is the wage of the treatment that they should receive. It is in itself an exploitation of their need – they have no room to take a stand about it because they need the job so much.
The problem is not only with Primark though - loads of clothing shops use cheap labour. It can be easier to point at the cheaper shops and assume that they are not paying or treating their workers properly because in their low prices we can’t see there being the margin to do so. The reality is that this had become the way that clothes are produced – for companies it is too expensive to produce clothes here in the UK.
The responsibility should not have to come down to the consumer. In hard financial times, for many people it is simply not an option to make sure the clothes they’re buying are ethically produced – they must choose clothes that they can reasonably afford.
That said the shocking images of dead bodies being dragged out of the rubble is enough to make people want to do something about it. Things like this just shouldn’t be happening – not when they could have been prevented.
Following the disaster many Bangladeshi factory workers demanded higher wages and many factories in and around Dhaka closed because of the unrest that ensured after the factory collapse.
The massive media attention on the whole situation has forced the Bangladeshi government to listen to the concerns over the treatment of factory workers. Almost 2 weeks after the collapse the government allowed garment workers to form trade unions without needing permission from the factory owners. A trade union gives the worker a united voice to lobby for things they feel strongly about in regards to their work.
Death and destruction apart perhaps the real tragedy is that it takes something so awful to see a change in attitudes to the treatment of garment workers. The change started when the workers formed unions. The government has announced that it will raise the minimum wage. At the time of the factory collapse the wage was around £25 per month – one of the lowest wages worldwide. The wage increase is being discussed by a board and should be effective within three months.
Here in the UK many people think we’ve gone health and safety mad and some of the rules feel over the top. In Bangladesh and many other poorer countries the health and safety standards are near enough non-existent and people’s lives are being put at risk each day. Three weeks after the tragedy a number of retailers have agreed to sign an accord to improve safety conditions in factories in Bangladesh. By signing it the companies (including Primark, H&M, Tesco and M&S) agree to insist on the implementation of fires and safety rules that should protect the workers and prevent something this bad happening again.
This disaster in particular has really made people think about where their clothes are coming from. Some have made the decision to boycott shops like Primark who they think don’t treat their workers properly.
After the disaster protestors targeted Primark’s flagship store in London. They said that the aim of their campaign was not to ask shoppers to boycott Primark stores but for a full enquiry to be done. After their protests Primark offered compensation to the victims of the factory collapse. This is exactly what should be expected, if the same thing was to happen here, there would be no question as to whether the company should compensate the victims. To give them their due Primark were the first company to sign the accord to improve safety conditions.
There is the danger that a mass boycott of some shops would result in the company no longer using factories in Bangladesh to produce clothes. This would be a quick-fix solution in response to a public backlash but it could have some serious implications for lives of the workers and the economics of Bangladesh.
The introduction of the minimum wage by the government and better working conditions is what the garment workers of Bangladesh need. There’s the risk that empty promises can be made to keep protesting workers and campaigners quiet – it is for this reason that it is so important we don’t forget what happened this April in Dhaka.
So many people dying in a tragedy that could have been prevented shows the lack of care that is given to thousands of people every day doing an undervalued job. The garment industry is the biggest in Bangladesh and it has changed the lives of many people in the country, particularly women, for the better. The meagre wage that they get at the moment is accepted because it is better than no wage at all – if it is possible for this wage to be increased then it undoubtedly should be.
Because big companies do not physically work with Bangladeshi garment workers it does not mean that they don’t have a duty of care. Even though they are doing a job thousands of miles away in another country they’re doing a job that is vital for their business.
All things considered our view is that a boycott does nobdy any favours. However as a consumer you can do your bit by writing to companies that you think are in the wrong and tell them your views. As was seen with this disaster the more attention something gets the more the companies feel that they must respond. When all eyes were on Primark after the factory collapse they could do nothing but behave in a responsible fashion.