Editor, UBM

April 24, 2014

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Rana Plaza anniversary: changing attitudes

Last year, international health and safety made the headlines when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh. Roz Sanderson asks if we’re doing enough to instigate change.

Sewing-foot500The Rana Plaza building, situated in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, housed various garment factories making clothes for brands including Benetton, Primark, Bonmarché, Walmart and Mango.

Over 3,000 workers were inside when the eight-storey building caved in on 24 April last year. Nearly three weeks after the disaster the final death toll stood at 1,134.

Funds were set up to provide medical and financial support to victims and their families, with Primark recently setting aside £5.4 million in compensation.

While this is undoubtedly a positive step to take, this disaster raises wider ethical questions. It places an onus on global companies to make a more committed response, other than simply pouring money into a disaster fund.

The disaster uncovered the poor working conditions for those in Bangladesh, the pitiful pay, long hours and poorly-built factories that make going to work each day a risk.

Vogue recently published an in-depth article exploring the ethics of the garment industry and the problems with protecting workers. It argued that laws need to cover international boundaries, but creating too much red tape around trading in Bangladesh would simply lead to companies taking their business to areas with less control.

This, in turn, would lead to mass unemployment in Bangladesh, where, in 2010, the manufacturing industry employed approximately four million people. The textile and garment-manufacturing industry is made up of young workers, the majority of which are women.

The industry is, it has been argued, a means of empowering women who would otherwise be working as maids or in the fields. Their job allows them independence and occasionally makes them the breadwinner.

Anna Gedda, social sustainability manager for H&M, argued that the best thing for fashion brands to do was keep their business in Bangladesh, as a mass pull-out from the country would only cause problems.

In an ideal world, the workplace laws in Bangladesh would match those in the UK and other developed countries. We don’t accept poor working conditions in the UK — if somebody dies or is injured while they are at work, there is uproar — so, why do we accept the poor conditions overseas? Is it just too far removed from our everyday lives?

How much responsibility should we, as consumers, really take for the health and safety of those who manufacturer our clothes?

I wonder if it is simply about choice. Many of us will make decisions about the food we eat based on where it comes from. For instance, some people only buy free-range eggs because they are aware of, and don’t want to contribute to, the conditions that caged hens are kept in.

While I don’t want to compare the life of a human to that of a chicken, I can’t help thinking that if we had the option to buy clothes from a brand we knew was supporting the health and safety of their employees, most of us would jump at the chance.

In the meantime, progress is being made in Bangladesh. The Accord, a legally binding agreement signed by over 150 apparel corporations from 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, as well as numerous Bangladeshi unions and global trade unions, is designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe.

It includes independent safety inspections at factories and public reporting of the results of those inspections. Where issues are identified, retailers commit to ensuring repairs are carried out, sufficient funds are made available to do so, and that workers at these factories continue to be paid.

As a society, we play a huge role in the funding of large fashion corporations, whose supply chain we know little or nothing about. Many victims of the disaster in Dhaka have received compensation for their injuries or loss, but more are still waiting.

By supporting and pushing for improvements in Bangladesh, we can help to ensure that nothing on this scale happens again.

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