How Much is Your Jumper Worth?
The death toll at the disaster in Savor, Bangladesh now stands at over 1,000 people, of which the vast majority are women. Cracks in the building’s foundations were noted days before the disaster, with safety concerns raised. Despite these concerns, and without a full safety inspection garment workers were forced back to work, with bosses threatening those who didn’t with dismissal. The result was a disaster with the building collapsing, taking scores of lives with it. This is not the first such disaster in Bangladesh, it is in fact one in a long line, with over 1,800 garment workers dying in industrial related accidents since 2005.
Why this was and still is allowed to happen, and who’s to blame is complex and not as black and white as it might first appear. On the face of it it’s the owners of the factories who force the garment workers into these squalid and unsafe conditions who are to blame, and obviously they are the main culprits and they do bear much of the responsibility. But blame also lies with the retail multi-nationals, government officials and us. In an increasingly globalised world economy, where outsourcing labour is the norm this is the product of supply and demand, we in the west demand cheap clothing, coupled with an insatiable appetite for fast fashion, and countries such as Bangladesh supply cheap labour coupled with lax industrial laws and almost non-existent workers rights. Retail giants outsource the work based on price, and therefore accountability and responsibility is lost, and workers ultimately suffer. Many retail giants stung by past criticism do audit factories, or work closely with manufactures to ensure basic safety standards are met, but is auditing one factory once a year enough to ensure safety standards? Many would argue that this is the responsibility of government, and it is but due to a myriad of factors not least corruption this doesn’t always happen. Governments also have to ensure they continue to create economic growth, something which is not easy in today’s recession afflicted world economy. Big organisations are vital to the continued developed of countries like Bangladesh, the recent decision of Disney to pull out the country could spell economic disaster if other large players decide to follow suit.
Although sometimes dangerous, and often exploitative the garment industry has allowed for a degree of social transformation. The industry has given women, mainly from poor rural areas a chance to earn a living. It does also have a minimum wage, set at £25 a month, something which did not exist before 2010. As a result of the Savor tragedy the Bangladeshi government has relaxed trade union laws, allowing the four million garment workers to form trade unions without the need for prior permission from factory owners, a major step forward in the fight for workers’ rights. All this is good, but as seen recently it’s not enough. It is essential that we as consumers in the west, and as customers of the companies which outsource to places like Bangladesh, make it clear that we value human rights above cheap fashion. Its not easy to make the connection between a cheap jumper and a woman in Bangladesh, it’s not easy to take ethical considerations into account when looking for a deal, but it is something we have to do to ensure disasters such as Savor do not happen again. Most profit driven companies will not act unless their profits take a nose dive (as recently seen with Starbucks, which only agreed to pay UK tax after a consumer boycott), and governments will not seek to legislate unless economic development is threatened or a major disaster causes them to react. So it’s us as consumers who have the power to affect change with our feet and our wallets.