Garments workers matter more than burgers

Independent on Sunday, 28 April 2013

Eating a bit of horse won’t kill you. You’re unlikely to become even mildly ill from eating burgers laced with horsemeat, despite a media storm of massive proportions. Buying clothes manufactured in sweatshops in Bangladesh won’t hurt you either, but it’s a different story for the people who work in the industry. Yesterday, survivors were still being pulled from the ruins of an eight-storey building in the capital, Dhaka, which collapsed on Wednesday morning, killing hundreds. Rana Plaza housed four clothing firms which have in the past supplied Western chains, including Primark and Matalan.

Three thousand people are believed to have been in the building when it collapsed and two factory owners have been arrested, accused of forcing employees to work despite visible cracks in the walls. It’s the highest death toll to date in an industry where fatal accidents are common; only five months ago, 112 people died in a fire at a clothes factory in Dhaka.

Why isn’t this scandal on the front page of every British newspaper and leading news bulletins? The garment industry in Bangladesh wouldn’t exist but for the demand for impossibly cheap clothes on Western high streets. The fashion industry harms young women by sending half-starved models on to the catwalk, but what about the damage it does to the mostly female workforce on another continent?

There are 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, and the country is attractive to western companies because its labour costs are among the lowest in the world. Factories have working conditions which wouldn’t be tolerated in Europe, but the government won’t impose stringent rules on an industry which accounts for three-quarters of the country’s £24bn annual exports. Unions are shut out of some factories altogether, so nothing is likely to change unless foreign companies and consumers face up to their responsibilities.

The roots of this scandal lie in a globalised economy where western shopping habits – for food and clothes alike – are disconnected from the manner of production. The fashion-conscious young have been persuaded by clever marketing to think that clothes should be cheap and disposable, just as poor families came to believe that eight nutritious burgers could be made for £1. It remains to be seen whether the horsemeat scare will change consumer behaviour in the long term, but there’s no comparable outcry about the plight of Asian garment workers.

The human face of the disaster was illustrated when an American NGO posted ID cards found in the rubble of the Rana Plaza on its website; one belonged to an-18-year-old sewing operator called Lucky, who worked on the seventh floor. It isn’t known whether she survived. But the NGO claimed that some of the dead and missing worked 14 hours a day for “starvation” wages. This is the real cost of fashion, and it’s a much bigger scandal than microscopic traces of horsemeat in frozen lasagne.


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