The sight of Reshma Begum being pulled alive and uninjured from the wreckage of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh has sent a wave of joy and reliefaround the world. But on April 24th, when the world first woke to the news of the collapse of the eight-story factory crushing to death hundreds of men and women, we felt a tsunami of rage and immediately sought a culprit.
When it emerged that cut-price western brand name companies were sourcing from that factory, we sought no more. Multinational company = greed/evil/heartlessness. How could they possibly produce $4 t-shirts without exploiting workers and putting their lives at risk?
But can the price of a t-shirt really lead to a fatal crack in an eight-story building? Let’s try to see the full picture.
I was present at the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In neighbouring Assam, my family prepared to hide under the dining table draped with wet blankets in case the fighter planes flying overhead started dropping bombs. My grandparents ran a feeding and medical programme in West Bengal for the thousands of refugees that flowed over the border of the newborn country.
In the years that followed, the name Bangladesh became synonymous with poverty. The “basket case of Asia” struggled to survive floods, droughts, famines, economic domination by its neighbours, corrupt and violent politics, and a dearth of exportable products. But things began to change when the export garment industry started growing.
According to a UN Development Programme report, “Between 1980 and 2012, Bangladesh’s life expectancy at birth increased by 14.0 years … expected years of schooling increased by 3.7 years. Bangladesh’s GNI per capita increased by about 175 percent.”
Despite the good news, what made all this possible was Bangladesh’s vast pool of cheap labour – which made a perfect fit with our voracious appetite for cheap fashion. The government, entrepreneurs, Western brands, factory workers, and all of us who bought our $4 t-shirts, leapt on the bandwagon of the Bangladeshi garment industry as if we were gold-rush prospectors in the Wild West.
Garment factories sprang up everywhere in Bangladesh. Hundreds of workers, along with heavy machinery and mountains of dusty, flammable materials were crammed into jerry-built, narrow-stairwayed residential tower blocks. The hazards were deemed less important than the fact that these people could now earn a living and some foreign exchange could start flowing into the basket.
This is not meant as a justification. It’s the kind of desperate choice that is no choice at all, which people – or countries – living in extreme poverty are forced to make.
Bangladesh is still one of the poorest countries in the world. The country’s cultural and political attitudes to things like building regulations, health and safety, and workers’ rights did not change either. Campaigns by Bangladeshi non-profits and trade unionists to improve the lives of factory workers have led to some improvements, but have cost at least one union leader his life.
Some Western brands sourcing from the country have also tried to improve workers’ lives. For example, brands that belong to organisations like the Ethical Trading Initiative try to persuade and help the factories and agents who supply them to adopt the International Labour Organisation-based code. These demand fair wages, decent working hours, regular work, healthy and safe working places, and freedom to form unions. They ban forced labour, discrimination, child labour and harsh treatment.
They conduct audits to check if their stipulated working conditions are being met. They do it because of pressure from their customers and the press, but also because it makes good business sense. And, in some cases, because it’s the right thing to do.
But Western brands only have so much influence over their suppliers; they may only be one of many customers. They may not even know who sews on those final buttons or under what conditions. We saw from Europe’s horse meat scandal how complex supply chains can be, even in bureaucratic Europe; how much more so, then, in gold-rush Bangladesh?
But sadly they cannot check every crack in every wall in every building; this won’t be the last such disaster.
So yes, brands sourcing from such factories must take their share of the responsibility for the disaster. But so must Sohel Rana, the factory owner who was building another illegal floor on top of the already dangerous structure. So must the supervisors who herded the workers with sticks into the condemned building. And above all, so must the Bangladeshi government, which failed to implement adequate building safety and labour conditions laws.
There are ways of reducing the price of garments without paying poverty wages. The choice of materials, sourcing out of season, production and shipping efficiencies, buying in bulk, et cetera can bring prices down. And of course, costlier t-shirts aren’t necessarily produced under conditions that are any better. But the relentless demand to drive down prices certainly puts extra pressure on efforts to improve working conditions.
So brands, factory owners, NGOs, trade unions, governments, consumer groups and human rights campaigners must all work together to change the laws, attitudes and culture that make atrocities like this possible.
And what can we do? At the very least, we can let our favourite brands know that we want only ethically produced goods. Us consumers have great power. And with great power comes great responsibility.
Sabita Banerji is Knowledge and Learning Officer at the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of ETI.